Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | June 21, 2022
The two finalists to be the next superintendent for Orange County Public Schools sat for public interviews with the Orange County School Board on Tuesday, both emphasizing their commitment to helping students achieve academically.
“We have to make sure that when we see a child walk through the door we are not a barrier to that child’s success,” said Peter Licata, a regional superintendent for the Palm Beach County school districts. “We have to be the advocate for children, all children.”
Maria Vazquez, OCPS’ deputy superintendent, said she believed in the “the power public education has to change lives” and in “equity and access for all children.” She added, “I am not afraid to tackle the issues that affect our most vulnerable students.”
The two separate interviews were open to the public and broadcast on the board’s YouTube channel, which more than 200 people watched.
The eight board members mostly asked the two candidates the same questions, probing at their leadership styles and how they’d improve employee morale and handle student mental health issues, among others.
In broad terms, Licata, 57, and Vazquez, 58, share similar resumes, each having been with their districts for more than 20 years, working their way up from teachers to principals to district administrators.
Licata noted that his father and other relatives were also educators. He said he still loves attending Friday night football games and visiting schools to speak with students. “We don’t talk to children often enough,” he added.
Vazquez said her parents fled Cuba for a better life and though they spoke no English, public schools helped her. “I am living proof of what a quality education can do to transform lives,” she said.
In their interviews both sounded some similar themes, about listening to employees and parents, for example, and about making sure struggling students were not ignored. Both offered written plans to the board about what they’d do their first months in office, if hired.
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who has been on the job for a decade, is retiring at the end of the year, prompting a search for her replacement.
The eight board members will conduct private, individual interviews with each finalist on Wednesday.
The board plans to pick a new superintendent at its 4:45 p.m. meeting on June 28 and complete a contract with that person a few weeks later.
Licata, who supervises 60 schools in Palm Beach, said he is a leader willing to speak to lawmakers in Tallahassee, sit with teachers at lunch and meet with parents in the community.
“That’s my strength. That’s what I will bring,” he said.
Licata said he was impressed with OCPS but also saw room for improvement, noting it is of similar size to Palm Beach but doesn’t have as many students tackling advanced classes or career and technical classes and has more families opting for a state scholarship that pays for private school.
If hired he would not “settle for what our successesare,” he said, and would look to boost morale by trying not to “keep piling on” to teachers’ duties.
Vazquez, who has Jenkins’ support, made mention of a similar effort recently in Orange that involved surveying teachers and asking what requirements could be scrapped from their list of responsibilities.
As an administrator, she said she still follows the advice of a former principal who told her, “We manage by walking around,” meaning school leaders needed to be visiting classrooms to understand what was working and what wasn’t.
As “second in command” in OCPS now, Vazquez “will be able to hit the ground running,” which is what the district needs in a time of “unprecedented challenges,” she said.
“We need someone who is ready day 1. I know I am that person,” she added.
Residents can use an online comment form to share their thoughts on the candidates with the board.
The board received 15 applications for the superintendent’s job, asked for more information on three semifinalists and then decided only Licata and Vazquez were ready to take on the task of running the nation’s ninth-largest school district. OCPS enrolls more than 200,000 students, runs more than 200 campuses and employs more than 25,000 people.
“They have that kind of global perspective, big picture perspective,” said board member Karen Castor Dentel as the board discussed the semifinalists on June 7.
Licata has been a finalist for the superintendent’s job in other districts, including Broward and Sarasota counties. He did not get the Sarasota job in 2020 and pulled out of Broward’s 2022 search after a preliminary vote showed other finalists had the backing of more board members than he did.
The board expects to offer its next superintendent a three-year contract with an annual salary of $295,000 to $350,000.