Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | February 24, 2021
The Seminole County School Board plans to meet Monday to try again to pick a new superintendent after a divided board tapped one candidate two weeks ago and then, in an unusual move, rescinded that vote late Tuesday.
The two finalists for the job are Chad Farnsworth, an assistant superintendent in Lake County, and Serita Beamon, the board’s attorney. At Monday’s meeting, the board could pick one of them or pursue other options, such as conducting a new search for Superintendent Walt Griffin’s replacement.
On Feb. 9, Farnsworth was selected as the Seminole school district’s next superintendent by a 3-2 vote, but that was overturned by another 3-2 vote Tuesday.
Several employees and community leaders urged the board to reconsider its first vote, saying Beamon, who has worked for the district for 16 years, is a better choice. Beamon would be the first Black person and the first woman to serve as a Seminole superintendent.
“You missed a great opportunity” to “make history for both women and people of color,” said Velma Williams, a former Sanford city commissioner and retired teacher who served on the board’s superintendent search committee.
Williams said Beamon impressed the committee and won support from all 21 members when they voted on whose applications to forward to the board. Farnsworth had support from 13 of the 21, she added.
Rescinding the first vote was suggested by veteran board member Tina Calderone, who voted in favor of Farnsworth two weeks ago. She said Tuesday that the first vote was made without a “substantive discussion” among board members, and she acknowledged that some residents and school employees were upset by the decision.
“I’ve done a lot of listening since the last board meeting,” she said.
Tuesday, a number of school employees, both Black and white, told the board they were disheartened that Beamon hadn’t been picked. Though she is not an educator, she has been deeply involved in school district decisions for years, has her two sons in county schools and is committed to making sure all students find academic success, they said.
Anna-Marie Cote, who recently retired as the district’s deputy superintendent, said she worked directly with three Seminole superintendents and was confident Beamon could fill the role. Beamon understands the school system’s commitment to “equity and excellence,” which have been district watchwords since it was freed from a federal desegregation order in 2006, a legal effort the attorney helped make happen, said Cote, who is white.
Farnsworth, who is white, has worked in Lake since 2017 but spent most of his education career, including a four-year-stint as superintendent, in a tiny North Florida school district. The Bradford County school district has fewer than 4,000 students and is C-rated.
Some of the speakers questioned how that positioned him to oversee the A-rated Seminole school district, which has nearly 67,000 students, offers a wide array of academic programs and serves a diverse community.
arbara Kirby-Bentley, a longtime Seminole educator, was blunt in her assessment. “I was heartbroken,” she said. “To me the message you sent two weeks ago was mediocre was okay.”
But some residents, in person and in emails to the board, said they favored an educator like Farnsworth to replace Griffin, who is retiring in the spring.
“I was extremely pleased to see that the School Board realized that choosing a career educator for this important position was paramount,” wrote Chuluota resident Katie Vail. “Having as many former educators in positions of authority in SCPS is definitely the key to success.”
During the Feb. 9 meeting, several school board members said both finalists had top-notch recommendations, but they were impressed with Farnsworth’s educational experience, which included time as a teacher, assistant principal and superintendent.
Farnsworth had not yet started work for the Seminole school district when the board voted to rescind its decision, but he was at the Tuesday evening meeting at the district’s headquarters in Sanford. He also had not submitted a letter of resignation to Lake County Schools, so he remains an employee of that school district.
He could not be reached for comment Wednesday, with officials from both school districts saying he did not want to speak with the news media. Beamon also declined an interview.
Calderone, first elected to the school board in 2010, made a motion to rescind the Feb. 9 vote and was joined by the two colleagues who’d wanted Beamon to get the job.
She said she wished the board had discussed the candidates before voting two weeks ago, noting each board member made brief comments but there was no back-and-forth discussion.
“I’m concerned our 3-2 vote lacked context,” she said. “Might I have voted differently after dialog with fellow board members?”
Calderone could not be reached Wednesday.
Board members Kristine Kraus and Chair Karen Almond, who’d voted for Beamon on Feb. 9, voted with Calderone on Tuesday. Board members Amy Pennock and Abby Sanchez, who’d voted for Farnsworth on Feb. 9, voted against reconsidering that decision.
The board’s search committee received 28 applications for superintendent, though two later withdrew. The committee forwarded five candidates to the board as potential finalists, and the board chose to interview two, Beamon and Farnsworth.
The board’s Monday meeting is scheduled from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 400 E. Lake Mary Blvd, Sanford.
Photo: Chad Farnsworth, left, and Serita Beamon are finalists for the superintendents job in the Seminole County school district. (Courtesy photo)