PBC superintendent decision: ‘A divided board’ faces agonizing choice

March 03, 2018
HANDOUT
The three finalists to be Palm Beach County’s next schools superintendent (from left): Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen, Chief Operating Officer Donald Fennoy, Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald. (Photos courtesy of the Palm Beach County School District)

Scarcely a month after it began, the fast dash to replace the resigning leader of Palm Beach County’s public school system is set to screech to a close this week, with no obvious front-runner and the prospect of a divided vote.

Three high-ranking administrators are in contention to replace Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa, who announced Feb. 5 that he would step down in June.

The school board is expected to make a final decision on Wednesday, but with no heir apparent, the school district is rife with speculation about who will emerge victorious and what the decision will mean for the direction of the county’s public schools.

RELATED: Finalist for PBC schools superintendent withdraws his name, leaving 3

Board members contacted by The Palm Beach Post last week declined to discuss their preferred candidates, but people familiar with the ongoing lobbying efforts say the board appears split.

“You have a divided board,” said a person familiar with board members’ thinking who asked not to be named.

In some ways, the jockeying to replace Avossa serves as a referendum on his 2 1/2-year tenure, as his allies advocate for one of his hand-picked deputies to replace him, while others push for a long-time insider with more intimate knowledge of the county’s schools and their leaders.

As the lobbying plays out behind closed doors, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen has attracted support from some board members and prominent members of the business community.

Ken Kahn, a member of the county’s economic council and education foundation who hired Avossa to be a vice president in his publishing company, endorsed Christiansen in an interview last month. The economic council itself interviewed all candidates but made no public endorsements.

RELATED: PBC deputy superintendent was arrested in 1990 prostitution case

As Avossa’s chief assistant, Christiansen is, on paper, the logical heir apparent. He was key in designing many of the school district’s strategies to improve student learning, including expanding the use of educational software and an increased emphasis on reading instruction in kindergarten through third grade.

Superintendent Robert Avossa during a press conference announcing his resignation on Feb. 5, 2018. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Andres Leiva/The Palm Beach Post

But insiders say his bruising management style has soured many within the district, weakening some of his support on the board. The revelation Friday that in 1990 he was arrested, but never prosecuted, on a prostitution violation could further complicate his bid.

“I think David’s complication is he has to overcome the situation with being the enforcer for (Avossa),” one person familiar with the negotiations said. “Remember the guy who would change principals was David, and a lot of people don’t like him for that.”

As a result, people knowledgeable about the process say some board members inclined to appoint the next superintendent from among Avossa’s top-level managers have indicated support for Donald Fennoy, the district’s chief operating officer and a longtime associate of Avossa who followed him from Orange County to Charlotte, N.C,. and then to Fulton County, Ga.

But although he is a longtime educator, Fennoy, as operations chief, is not well-known in the county’s schools and has had little direct involvement in the central academic initiatives.

RELATED: Only internal candidates to be considered in PBC schools chief search

Complicating their bids are board members’ views on Avossa, who enjoys public support from the board but has clashed privately with some and whose relationship was strained by his surprise decision last month to resign less than two years after revealing a five-year strategic plan for the district.

Underscoring those tensions, Avossa on Feb. 23 told board member Barbara McQuinn that he will no longer meet with her without his private attorney present and warned that she “will be held accountable” for making negative comments about him.

“By a lot of people, they’re still considered to be outsiders,” one person involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations said of Fennoy and Christiansen.

Some speculate that the splintered support for Avossa’s top assistants could leave an opening for Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald, a veteran county educator who was the school district’s top academic leader under former Superintendent Wayne Gent.

As Avossa took office and remade the district’s top ranks with a team of outsiders, he demoted Oswald to a lower position, although Oswald kept the same title and continues to oversee academic initiatives under Christiansen’s supervision.

A low-key former principal, Oswald enjoys support from minority organizations and is said have quiet backing from many principals. After weeks of tacit support, he was officially endorsed Friday by the county’s teachers union.

“Right now it would probably lean toward Keith,” one person familiar with the negotiations said. “He is probably the front runner right now.”

People involved in the process warn that much can change in the final days leading up to the vote, which are likely to be marked by a flurry of private conversations.

Board members are prohibited by Florida law from discussing the candidates privately with each other, but they are fielding calls from various interest groups making known their thoughts and preferences.

Board member Barbara McQuinn said she was leaning toward one candidate but had not yet made up her mind.

“I’m not at peace yet with where I think I’m going,” she said. “I absolutely have some pieces out there that I need to put together.”

But, she added: “Here’s what I know: I can’t please everyone.”