Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | February 9, 2021
The Seminole County School Board is slated to select a new superintendent this evening, picking one of the two finalists it interviewed Monday.
The finalists are Serita Beamon, the school board’s attorney, and Chad Farnsworth, an assistant superintendent in the Lake County school district.
The board interviewed both candidates for about 90 minutes Monday, asking each mostly the same questions in their separate sessions.
Board members did not discuss the candidates but questioned them about their priorities, backgrounds, leadership styles and about how they’d handle the academic and financial challenges Florida’s public schools are facing in the coming year. They also wanted to know how they’d maintain the A-rated school’s district’s scholastic successes.
Both candidates said replacing Superintendent Walt Griffin, who is retiring this spring after nine years leading the 67,000-student system, would not be easy.
“They’re big shoes, and I know it,” Beamon said.
Beamon, if selected, would be the first woman and the first Black person to hold the top job with Seminole County Public Schools. She has worked for the school district for 16 years, first as a staff attorney and now as the board’s attorney and as the director of the district’s legal services department.
She has called her quest to be superintendent unconventional, but in her interview said she is passionate about public education and about Seminole’s public schools, which helped launch her own success. She grew up in the county and graduated from Lake Mary High School before attending Stetson University and then law school at Florida State University.
One of her key priorities, if hired, would be “equity for all students,” so that all students can find success, she said.
“We are always going to be looking at, are we providing access to all our students for them to have a meaningful diploma at the end of their time with us?” Beamon said. “We’re gong to do the hard work to make sure every kid has opportunity in our school system.”
Though she focuses now on the district’s legal affairs, she said her position has given her a view of much of its operations, and she knows teachers are the key. Meeting and talking with them and listening to their concerns will be a key first step, if she is superintendent.
“When you really need a pick me up, just go into the classroom,” she added.
Beamon said the coming year will need a focus on budget, which is expected to take a hit, on students who’ve slipped academically and on children and staff who are struggling emotionally because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have lived and are living through something that is traumatic,” she said. “I worry about stabilizing our district, so we don’t lose momentum or the trajectory of success we’ve enjoyed.”
Farnsworth is now the assistant superintendent over human resources in Lake. He also served one four-year term as the elected superintendent in Bradford County, a small North Florida school district where he spent most of his career, working as a teacher and administrator.
He did not win re-election in 2016 and the next year moved to Lake to take an administrative job with that school system.
“I keep my teaching certificate active,” Farnsworth said. “I’m a true educator at heart.”
He added, “At the end of the day, it’s the teacher who makes the difference in the classroom, and everything else is just the tool.”
Farnsworth said he views all decisions based on what is best for students. “Our priority has to be a return on investment for programs that are working for our kids,” he said.
If selected, he also said meeting with teachers, principals, parents and other community leaders would be among his first steps. He said he is comfortable “shouldering big decisions” but also listens to others’ ideas.
He’d strive to continue the success Seminole schools have had and to help students make up ground lost because of the pandemic. “We just need to make sure we’re getting kids back to where they need to be as quick as possible.”
The board’s search committee received applications from 28 people, two of whom later withdrew. The committee recommended the board consider five, and from that group the board selected the two finalists it wanted to interview.
It plans to offer the next superintendent a three-year contract, a salary of at least $165,000 to $195,000 and other benefits. The new schools chief is to start by June 1.
The school board meets at 5:30 p.m. at district headquarters, and the school board meeting will be live-streamed on the school district’s website.
Photo: Seminole county public school Superintendent Walt Griffin greets students on the first day of the 2015-16 school year at Lake Brantley High School. Griffin is retiring this year, and the Seminole County School Board is searching for his replacement. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel) (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel)