‘I’ve got to listen’: New Broward superintendent vows few abrupt changes

New Broward Superintendent Peter Licata is coming into a school district that has faced years of turmoil, but don’t expect any massive shakeups right away.

Licata, who started July 11 and will have his first School Board meeting Tuesday, is spending his first weeks listening and learning, not changing, he said in a wide-ranging interview this week with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

“The best leader listens to the generals and makes sure we are working as a unit,” Licata said Tuesday afternoon in his new office, hours after his contract was approved. “I’ve got to listen. I don’t know much other than what I’ve researched and studied. I’ve not touched Broward. I’ve read it from afar. I’ve driven through it. I’ve spent time here, but I need to feel it. I need to smell it. I need to taste it. I need to be enveloped in it, and I need to hear from people.”

His predecessor, Earlean Smiley, made some major personnel changes just days before he was selected as the new superintendent June 15, including promotions, demotions and transfers. Licata said he’s not planning another overhaul right now.

“That would upset the system too much. We’ve got to trust in Dr. Smiley’s moves,” Licata said. “I’m not going to change much right now. People should be worried about doing their job, not keeping their job. There will be some minor changes.”

Licata, 58, is a Broward native who has spent the past three decades as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and district-level administrator for the neighboring Palm Beach County school district. His most recent job was as regional superintendent for south Palm Beach County schools.

Under his three-year contract, he will make $350,000 with the possibility for an additional $20,000 based on performance. He will also have to move from Boynton Beach to Broward within his first year.

Many hope Licata will bring stability to a district that has gone through several superintendents in two years. Robert Runcie left in August 2021 after being indicted on a perjury charge that was later dismissed. Vickie Cartwright had a tumultuous 18-month tenure that included the release of a scathing grand jury report, the removal of four School Board members, being fired, rehired and then mutually separating from the district.

Smiley, a retired administrator, also butted heads with some School Board members after she failed to implement a sex education curriculum this school year, non-renewed some administrators while giving large raises to others, and oversaw a June 29 meeting to approve Licata’s contract without realizing there wouldn’t be enough board members for a quorum.

Licata’s start date was moved from July 3 to July 11 due to the June 29 meeting mishap. His wife, who works out of town, had flown in to see his appointment become official. But Licata said it all worked out fine, giving him some extra time to prepare for the job.

“It is what it is,” he said. “The true sign of a leader is how they react in crisis, not when everything’s good, and you’re going to find that out that when a crisis occurs, you’re going to see a very calm philosophy from me.”

Licata addressed many other issues he will face as the new leader.

First priorities

His top priorities include getting schools ready to open for students Aug. 21, which means “we’ve got to make sure we can hire as many people as we can.”

He also has a board meeting Tuesday where a major contract that affects the troubled $800 million bond program will come up The School Board must decide whether to renew AECOM, its program manager.

If the district decides not to renew the contract, it could mean more delays in a program that is already years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

He had two boxes in his office which he said he will be reading.

“I’m relying on some highly qualified administrators” for guidance on the AECOM matter, Licata said. “They’ve updated me a little bit. But that is my next week’s work and my weekend’s work right there.”

Becoming an A district

One of the issues Licata pledged to tackle in his job interview was to turn the perennially B-rated Broward into an A-rated district, similar to neighboring Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

He said there are 11 areas that determine a school grade and Broward’s weakness is in two of them. Too few middle and high school students are taking advanced placement classes, causing the district to just miss an A.  Without that metric, Broward’s student achievement would be higher than Palm Beach County’s, he said.

“We want to make sure we give the opportunity for advanced or acceleration courses for students that may not normally see it, that may be kept away by certain criteria that doesn’t make sense, like behavior,” he said. “The student might be a brilliant kid, so we want to make sure every kid has that opportunity, regardless of where they’re from.”

Success in that area could pay off for Licata. His contract includes a $10,000 bonus if Broward becomes an A.

Closing/repurposing schools

Another priority is to study whether to close and repurpose schools that are vastly underenrolled, Licata said. School Board member Allen Zeman is pushing for this in an effort to save money that can be redirected for teacher salaries and priorities. Board members have generally supported the concept in abstract, but it often becomes contentious once actual schools are targeted due to public resistance.

“You can’t just look at numbers and say, ‘Well, they don’t have the numbers, let’s close or repurpose it,” Licata said. “You have to go to the community and find out why students aren’t attending.”

“Maybe it’s leadership. Maybe it’s programming. If we [ask the community], ‘If we put this here, will you come back to the school?’ and they say they will, then you’re closing a school prematurely with a limited frame of reference,” he said. “You’ve really got to dig deeper.”

One possibility that has proven popular in Palm Beach County, he said, has been converting schools into K-8, since many parents don’t like traditional middle schools. This has been a popular model for charter schools, although Broward has had mixed results when it has tried it in recent years.

Corruption and grand jury findings

Four grand juries in 25 years have blasted how the district handles construction and maintenance issues and accused the district of corruption. In the 2000’s, two former School Board members were arrested on corruption-related charges, with one going to federal prison. Several district administrators have faced charges as well from state and federal authorities.

But Licata rejects sweeping allegations that the school district may have a culture of corruption.

Broward county school new Superintendent Peter Licata, discuss his priorities and how he plans to change the culture of Broward schools during 1-on-1 interview with sun sentinel reporter Scott Travis on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
New Broward County Superintendent Peter Licata discusses his priorities and the district’s culture during a one-on-one interview Tuesday. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“Broward hasn’t been that way. Individuals have been,” he said. “We can’t include everyone when it’s only a few individuals or instances. I think it’s a very unfair label to put on some amazing people that do amazing things.”

Licata said he plans to model honest and ethical behavior.

“I will not ask anyone in this organization to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he said.

Safety issues

Broward remains ground zero for safety issues in the state, having been the site of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, which killed 17 people in 2018. Two School Board members, Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff and Vice Chairwoman Debbi Hixon, both lost family members in that tragedy.

Licata said he’s pleased that the School Board now has a School Board member, Daniel Foganholi, appointed to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which has been studying ways to improve school safety in the wake of the tragedy.

Palm Beach County took a major step this year by piloting walk-through metal detectors, which use artificial intelligence to try to differentiate between a gun or knife and more routine items like keys and cellphones.  Right now, they’re being used in four schools during summer classes. Broward is considering a similar plan, but Licata said there are details that need to be worked out.

“Metal detectors are certainly another layer of safety. They’re not cheap,” Licata said.

“If you think about a school like Western High (in Davie) or Coral Glades High where you have thousands and thousands of kids trying to get through metal detectors, and they’re already getting on buses at 5:45 a.m. or 6 a.m. to get to school by 7:15 or 7:30, and it’s going to take 45 minutes just to get thousands of kids through those, we have to come up with a better system,” he said. “You can’t just line the entire schoolyard with metal detectors.”

He said he hasn’t heard any feedback, good or bad, about how the new metal detectors are working in Palm Beach County, but he said summer classes have a fraction of the enrollment as the regular school year.

School renovation program

One of the Broward school district’s biggest challenges, and one that led to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s removal of four School Board members last year, has been an $800 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2014. All projects were supposed to be complete by 2021. A new timeline was reset for a 2025 completion, but fewer than half the schools are finished.

Licata said a priority will be to fill the job of chief facilities officer, which has been vacant or filled on a temporary basis since 2019.

“We’re going to look around the country to make sure we find the best person to fill that position,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’m going to have to be hands deep in it and use my knowledge of what I know to make sure things are on time as much as possible. It’s not something you can fix with a magic wand. It’s going to take some serious work.”

His former employer, Palm Beach County Schools, is a district “that has a pretty spotless record in building and being on time and under budget,” Licata said. “We’ll get there.”

Public relations

One of Licata’s attention-grabbing comments during his interview was, “We have to stop giving good material to the media. We have to tell our stories.”

The school district has had no shortage of embarrassing headlines in recent months, including announcing clear backpacks without vetting the idea with the community, holding legally questionable secret meetings, and grappling with two School Board members facing allegations of inappropriate touching and most recently holding the meeting for Licata’s contract where only three of nine School Board members showed up.

“Let’s do our work. Let’s do our homework. Let’s be prepared,” Licata said. “Let’s make sure we’re going through all the processes and there’s not an error that we should have picked up or caught. Let’s make sure we’re not making it so easy on media to be able to address stories. If we say it, we own it but if we check it, we may fix it before we own it.”

The district has also faced criticism for a lack of transparency and reluctance to share information that makes the district look bad. “We owe it to the public to make sure they know what we’re doing,” he said, adding some sensitive safety issues that can’t be shared right away.

“I’ve talked to our staff and we want to make sure things get out as fast as possible with correct information,” he said. “You’ll see some adjustments to making sure we get public records requests out as fast as possible.”

Culture war issues

The traditionally liberal Broward school district has been forced to make a right turn in the past year, largely due to new laws and directives from the Legislature and the DeSantis administration. These include banning most instruction of LGBTQ issues, restricting the instruction on racial issues, requiring the conservative State Board of Education to approve sex education curriculum and making it easy for parents and community members to challenge books in school libraries.

Licata said it’s important for the district to focus on what’s in its control.

“Public education is not a political ideology in my view. It’s an American ideal,” Licata said. “If we jump on the bandwagon and polarize it ourselves, we’re as guilty as anyone. At the end of the day, our job is to educate children. We want to make sure anything that’s done is in the best interest of children.”

He said if the district opposes something happening in Tallahassee, it can decide to fight it.

“You don’t break the law. You don’t ever break the law,” he said. “Legislation doesn’t happen overnight. I think it’s important that we stay out in front of all the legislation and be aware of it rather than wait for it to come to us.”

The Broward School Board also has a mix of conservative, liberal and moderate members who often take different stances on charter schools, school vouchers, LGBTQ issues, the role of religion and other issues.

“What’s best for kids is different in everyone’s eyes,” Licata said. “But the greatest documents in the world, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were formed by people that didn’t agree on a lot of things. They came together to produce amazing documents.”

He noted a three-hour meeting Tuesday to approve his contract. School Board members disagreed on a number of issues, such as salary, potential severance and a residency requirement. But in the end, they approved his contract unanimously.

“The board showed working together was something they can do, and it was exciting,” Licata said.