debra-robinson_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

WEST PALM BEACH — Defying the wishes of the chairman, one of the two black members of the Palm Beach County School Board is going ahead with plans to convene a community forum to gather  input on the search for a new superintendent.

Citing what she calls “superficial” and “minimal” efforts so far in the search, School Board Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson is holding a forum this Thursday, Dec. 15, 5:30 – 8 p.m. at the school district’s Fulton Holland Services Center Board Room in West Palm Beach. She is insisting that more has to be done to ensure the most effective and qualified candidate is hired.

Wayne Gent was appointed interim superintendent after Art Johnson resigned under pressure earlier this year.  Johnson, who held the position for nearly 10 years, came under fire when it was alleged former Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Hernandez did consulting work in Memphis, Tenn., while on the district’s payroll and various e-mails of his unexplainably were deleted.

Robinson is the only remaining member from the board that hired Johnson. She said that search had been “minimal” and “superficial” and she is determined not to let that happen again.

She is planning to use the results from the forum to score the candidates’ applications prior to culling the strongest applicants into a short list, according to a press release she authorized.

But School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri says Robinson’s meeting is unwarranted.

“The board collectively decided on a process of selecting a permanent superintendent. We held 13 public meetings throughout the county. We planned them strategically throughout the district so the public would have a chance to go to them close to their homes. The process was adopted by the full board,” Barbieri said.

Robinson, though, is not backing down. “I am determined to listen to my constituents in the urban corridor, many from the 13 previous meetings,” she said. “Out of those meetings, a proven track record, parental engagement and student achievement (emerged) as key points in hiring a permanent superintendent.”

Barbieri counters that introducing a scorecard or rubric system, as envisioned by Robinson, is not necessary. The board is aware of the qualities the community is looking for in candidates, based on public meetings already held and input from residents, he says. Meetings took place in various parts of the county, including the Glades area, he says.

For Robinson, that is not enough. One reason for her forum, she says, is to clarify the wants and needs of the community because perceptions can be ambiguous or subjective.

“My definition of a good track record may differ from other board members’ or other individuals’,” she said. “Overall graduation levels, what percent is good enough in terms of student achievement?”

Applications for the superintendent position are due by Jan. 6. The board’s short list is due by Jan. 18.

Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest school district in the country, and Broward County, the sixth largest, have had similar searches for superintendents.

Alberto M. Carvalho, a Hispanic, has been managing Miami-Dade’s public school system since September 2008. Robert W. Runcie, an African American, took charge in Broward County in October.

Palm Beach County has the nation’s 11th largest school district. Meeting and maintaining academic achievement goals for its 171,700 pre-K through 12th-grade students would challenge even the most experienced candidates, Robinson says. The minimum qualifications for a prospective superintendent are set too low, she says.

“I’m clear we need an educator, someone from a large?”district who was deputy superintendent or superintendent. I don’t want a businessperson,” she says. “I’m going to suggest (in the meeting) that we look at a lot of data: student performance, discipline, groups typically underserved.”

Robinson says she also wants to continue with transparency and the collective thought process in how the applications are dealt with. She says the scorecard developed from her forum could help focus expectations, with no obligation for any school board member to use it.

That, Barbieri counters, is inappropriate and he is making it clear that Robinson is acting on her own in setting up the forum and any future meetings concerning using the scorecard or rubric system.

Robinson acknowledges there was some tension among board members when she scheduled the meeting but says, “I’m clear that I answer to the community and this is a community process. I hope the community will speak up (at the meeting). Their silence can be taken as agreement with the status quo.”

Photo: Debra Robinson