After Avossa, educators mull: Stay the course or hire new “disruptor”?

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa’s surprise decision to resign in June has forced school board members into a stark choice: conduct a national search to replace him or tap someone from his staff to fill the role?

Each option has pros and cons. Each has support from some school board members, who are expected to debate the matter publicly next week.

But as board members mull the choices, the question stands as a proxy for whether an outsider could continue Avossa’s reforms or would inevitably steer the county’s public schools on a different course.

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Avossa took over the school district in 2015 vowing to be a “disruptor.” He and his administration worked to remake school operations on many fronts, refiguring the district’s management structure, pushing principals to pay more attention to test scores and focusing more deeply on raising key metrics such as high school graduation rates and elementary reading scores.

Hiring another reformer three years later could undermine key initiatives that are still being put in place, some board members warned.

Among those pushing for a current school district administrator to replace Avossa as chief executive of the county’s public school system is Avossa himself.

In his resignation letter Monday, Avossa called for board members to appoint one of his subordinates.

“I recommend the board strongly consider appointing an internal candidate that has intimate knowledge of our work and has demonstrated the ability to deliver results,” he wrote.

His suggestion has early support from at least three board members, who told The Palm Beach Post that promoting one of Avossa’s deputies would likely be the best way to maintain continuity as the district moves forward with reforms to its roughly 180 public schools.

“To me, it would make sense to bring in someone who has inside knowledge, working knowledge,” School Board member Barbara McQuinn said.

Even if an outside candidate could get up to speed quickly on the district’s strategic plan, she said, “it still takes knowing the people to get the best out of everyone.”

School Board Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson said a talented outsider would inevitably want to “put their own mark on the district,” something that could be counterproductive since the district is already “headed in the right direction.”

“I just don’t want to do the stutter-step,” Robinson said, “and I don’t want to have somebody come in and have to acclimate them to the work that’s being done when they’re looking at making their own mark.”

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Board member Frank Barbieri echoed those points, saying that it’s important to tap “somebody from within that’s very familiar with our plan.”

Among potential internal candidates, early speculation quickly focused on Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen, a longtime acquaintance of Avossa who he recruited in 2015 to oversee the county’s schools and academic staff.

Also among those mentioned as a potential contender was Donald Fennoy, the school district’s chief operating officer, who Avossa brought with him from Fulton County, Ga., soon after taking the job.

But other board members are skeptical about appointing an internal candidate without surveying the rest of the nation for potential talent.

Board member Karen Brill said the school district is full of rising stars but none who have ever held the top job in a school district.

I do not believe we have anybody who is capable of taking the helm of a district this size,” she said. “Being superintendent of a district this large is not the same as being in a leadership role. And we have made so much progress. I would look for somebody who has a proven success rate.”

Board member Marcia Andrews said that she would be open to internal and external candidates but said she felt there needed to be “a process and competition.”

“I’m always looking to make sure that we do have a process,” she said.

In 2015, the school board hired Ray and Associates, a national search firm whose two-month search cost the school district $72,000. The search ended with the hire of Avossa, who has received consistently high marks from board members.

Barbieri said he worried that another national search would be time-consuming and redundant if board members are generally satisfied with the school district’s direction.

Brill, though, said that board members owe it to their constituents to do a thorough and careful search.

“I do not want to see us make a hasty decision,” she said. “In my opinion, the superintendent of Palm Beach County schools is the most important position in all of Palm Beach County.”

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