The next leader of Palm Beach County’s public school system will be Donald Fennoy, the school district’s chief operating officer and a longtime protégé of current Superintendent Robert Avossa, school board members decided Wednesday.
In choosing Fennoy, board members signaled their preference that a close ally of Avossa’s carry forward the initiatives that Avossa has undertaken before his surprise announcement last month that he intended to resign. Fennoy, 41, will be the county’s first African-American schools superintendent.
A school district employee for just two years, Fennoy was not well known within the county’s schools or the larger community before Wednesday’s vote, but he enjoyed support from board members due his close relationship with Avossa, his reputation as a congenial leader and his varied experience as both an educator and an operational executive.
Fennoy’s appointment brings to a close more than a month of speculation about who would replace Avossa after his surprise announcement on Feb. 5 that he would resign later this year. Board members still have to negotiate a contract with Fennoy but expect him to officially replace Avossa as the school district’s chief executive this month.
In their search for a replacement for Avossa, board members quickly decided to consider only internal candidates but struggled privately to choose between the finalists: Fennoy, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen and Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald.
After extensive public interviews with each of the three, board members decided Wednesday against any public discussion of their relative merits, casting votes instead via written ballot. The initial voting revealed a deeply split board.
In the first round, Fennoy and Oswald received three votes each, while Christiansen received one, from board member Karen Brill. A second round of voting eliminated Christiansen from contention. In the third round, Fennoy won by a 5-2 vote over Oswald, with board members Frank Barbieri and Marcia Andrews voting for Oswald.
Barbieri immediately called for another round of voting so that all board members could officially approve Fennoy with an unanimous vote.
After the final 7-0 vote, Fennoy stepped into the board room to applause and afterward was surrounded by well-wishers in the hallway outside.
“I’m just excited that I can continue the work in the district that Dr. Avossa started,” he told reporters afterward.
In his interview with board members earlier in the afternoon, he acknowledged his low profile in the school district but said in his short time in the county he had grown to love the community.
“I’m at a disadvantage because of my role,” he told board members. “I was like the known unknown. People know me but they don’t know anything about me.”
But he pointed out he was the only one of the three finalists who had a child enrolled in the county’s public schools. One of his two children has blossomed, he said, at an elementary school in Wellington.
He offered a glimpse of what may prove to be a contrast in management styles with Avossa, saying that the district’s management in recent years has been too “top-down” and that he hoped to return more autonomy to school principals to tailor their teaching strategies to their own communities.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all to how we educate our children,” he said.
A self-described military “brat” who grew up moving from state to state and lived for a time in England, Fennoy graduated in 1999 from Florida A&M University and began his educational career as a third-grade reading teacher in an Orlando public school.
After five years in elementary and middle schools he was promoted to assistant principal, then was tapped in 2006 to be a high school principal in Charlotte, N.C.
He spent four years in that role before leaving public schools to lead a Maryland nonprofit that trained school leaders. He returned to public education when Avossa tapped him to be an area superintendent in Fulton County’s public school system.
When Avossa came to Palm Beach County, he soon hired Fennoy. This time, instead of an academic job overseeing schools, Avossa made Fennoy the district’s chief operating officer, a powerful but low-profile position overseeing transportation, school police, food service, construction and maintenance.
Just months after a major meltdown in the school bus operation, Fennoy’s hire surprised some. A lifelong educator, he had no management experience overseeing the complex systems and policies that guide construction projects, school buses, law enforcement and serving and preparing food.
He rarely spoke publicly or addressed the school board at public meetings. But his tenure was marked by improvements in the school buses and the district’s generally well-regarded management of shelters during Hurricane Irma.
As superintendent, he will oversee roughly 180 schools educating more than 172,000 students. It is also the county’s largest employer.
Suddenly the center of attention Wednesday evening, he said he immediately got a taste of the new spotlight he had stepped into courtesy of his cell phone.
“I’ve never had 100 text messages in 10 minutes,” he said.