debra-robinson_web.jpgWEST PALM BEACH — The field of candidates vying for School District of Palm Beach County superintendent has been narrowed to four candidates and the final selection will be made by March 1.

School Board members on Feb. 5 will begin interviewing the final four candidates to replace former Superintendent Art Johnson, who resigned last February. Senior administrator Wayne Gent is serving in the interim.

From an initial 23 candidates, board members on Jan. 18 named Constance Jones, Tom Watkins, Janis Andrews and James Browder to the short list.

All claim to have worked with a diverse student population. School Board Vice Chairwoman Deborah Robinson said the driving criteria for the superintendent’s seat should be a commitment to all students and especially those who traditionally have faced challenges beyond their control.

Robinson has a clear image of the type of person she wants to see in charge: one who addresses issues facing minority children.

“The issues that involve children of color are the same issues around the country where what we have is multi-generational lack of educational opportunities and the expectation that they will do well. That has got to be addressed. So the way that we have to do that is be truly engaging and empowering the communities that we as a system have tended to ignore. Those are the communities of color,” Robinson said. “You could also talk about low income communities no matter what the color… black and Hispanic.”

In order to achieve this, Robinson said, the best candidate should have firsthand experience.

“I want somebody, a career educator, you know, somebody who has moved from the classroom to administration and then been an upper level administrator in a large school district. I really don’t think we can truly understand the complexity of the issues if you haven’t walked in those shoes,” Robinson said. “I’ve been on the board 11 years, never been a teacher and I am still learning how the decisions we make as a board impact in the classrooms, and that is because I’ve never been a teacher.”

Robinson and community members designed a rubric to weigh each person’s credentials, including relevant experience for the job.

In the category “Exp. successfully working w/racially/ethnically diverse community,” Andrews came out ahead with a 3, Jones and Browder each scored a 1 and Watkins 0. The rubric chart can be read at:

The final four present varied education records.

Andrews currently serves as the county’s assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Learning Support. In her eight-year tenure, black and Hispanic performance has improved in the western area, Robinson told The Palm Beach Post.  Robinson said Andrews is “a person, in my opinion, who takes care of business.”

Jones has experience as the Lee County School District’s chief academic officer. Schools in that district have students representing 159 countries and 98 languages. About 72 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches and 42 of the 119 schools qualify as Title I schools, according to public records.

Browder’s experience includes serving as Lee County Schools superintendent from 2003 to 2010. He also has taught high school, has been a university adjunct professor, a principal, assistant superintendent for district operations and a college administrator.

Watkins, a Michigan-based education and business consultant, once served as executive director of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. He stated in his letter of application that he has led both the education and mental health departments at the state level in Michigan, served as a member of the Detroit Public School Board, chaired the Michigan State School Board and played a role in establishing charter schools in Michigan as well Miami’s Liberty City.

Palm Beach County’s new school superintendent will begin work June 1. Once that person is in place, Robinson said, she’d like to see several things accomplished.

“We need to alter our curriculum so that the history of all people is taught to all children. We also need to find ways to increase exposure to the arts.  We need to reinstitute physical education, reinstitute a homeroom scenario. We need to have specific people in the school to address school culture and behavior issues in a positive way,” she said.

With shrinking educational budgets, Robinson acknowledges that the person chosen will face difficult times.

“How do we do those things with diminishing resources I don’t know,” she said. “We have to do a true analysis of the system to see what things we are doing now that are not effective, and take those dollars to use towards things we need to do. But that is going to be a major fight.”

Photo: Debra Robinson