Two finalists vying to be the next superintendent of the Beaufort County School District answered questions from the public Saturday at the district’s main office in Beaufort, where community trust and the importance of integrity in leadership quickly emerged as running themes.
Frank Rodriguez, regional superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, and Terry Dade, assistant superintendent for region 3 of Fairfax County Public Schools, were each given 30 minutes to separately address the crowd of about 80, which included several principals as well as Board of Education members.
Both finalists — selected by the school board in a special-called executive session April 6 — were asked identical questions that had been previously submitted by the public and vetted by Illinois-based executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates.
Though no direct reference was made to former superintendent Jeff Moss, both men were asked about issues that were reflections on Moss’ rocky five-year tenure with the district, which included two failed bond referendums, state ethics charges and an ongoing FBI investigation related to the construction of two Bluffton schools as well as Moss’ association with the Education Research and Development Institute.
One question brought laughter from the candidates and the crowd.
“What would members of the audience find if they Googled you?,” asked Bill Adams of Hazard, Young and Attea, who served as moderator of the forum.
Rodriguez, responsible 58,000 students in the central region of Palm Beach County, listed his accomplishments as a soccer coach and his success in launching Latinos in Action, a program focused on improving academic achievement among Hispanic students as well as teaching leadership skills in middle and high schools.
“I don’t think that’s what you want to talk about, though” he said.
He then told the audience about how he had been a finalist for Palm Beach County superintendent last year but had withdrawn his name from consideration.
He cited that district’s large size — 193,000 students — and the effect it would likely have on his family as a key reason he did not pursue the opportunity.
“I began looking for smaller school systems,” he said, noting Beaufort County’s size of 22,000 students.
Rodriguez also told the audience about a situation that occurred two years ago in which he was accused of pressuring a student not to speak publicly at a school board meeting about a complaint the student had regarding an ongoing personnel issue at one of Rodriguez’s high schools.
A report in the Palm Beach Post said of the incident: “Though the practice is rarely discussed openly, school district administrators regularly work to head off speakers planning to say unflattering things at board meetings about the county’s public schools or their employees. Teachers receive visits to their classrooms. Students are pulled into the principal’s office. Parents get phone calls home.”
On Saturday, Rodriguez was emphatic he had made it clear to the student that he was free to speak at the meeting and denied ever pressuring the student otherwise.
He met with the student, he said, to discuss possible solutions to the teen’s concern.
In an interview with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette after the forum, Rodriguez said he mentioned the incident because he wanted to be transparent and that he did not object to anyone publicly raising concerns about decisions he makes.
When asked the same question about Google, Dade, whose region has 37,000 students, told the audience to “Google away!”
“I’m all over social media,” he said before telling the crowd about his two Twitter accounts. One is professional and is used to cheer on “wicked smart kiddos” in his district and the other is personal but open to the public, which contains evidence of his extreme University of Virginia fandom as well as photos and musings from his life as a dad of two young children.
Both Rodriguez and Dade said they have experience in getting bond referendums passed and stressed that transparency, honesty and keeping promises were integral in gaining the public’s trust.
“We said exactly how we were going to spend that money,” Rodriguez said of why his community supported two bond referendums in the past three years.
Dade, who called himself a data geek and a rule follower, said, “Character matters. How you conduct yourself matters.”
Both also said they support school choice but noted the importance of looking at its effectiveness and accessibility.
“Is it truly school choice?” is a question Dade said would be important to ask of the program.
Rodriguez and Dade also answered questions about their plans for the first 90 days on the job, their thoughts on how to close the achievement gap and what their most unpopular decisions were.
For Rodriguez, it was the removal of a well-liked principal and assistant principal from a high school.
“Our job is not just to hand out cupcakes and lollipops,” he said. “Our job is to do the right thing.”
For Dade, it was having to redraw the boundaries of an elementary school zone.
He said he “slept very well” at night after the decision was made, though, because it was the result of community collaboration and making an effort to “truly engage” the people who would be affected and he knew he’d “done right by students.”
Both men also expressed a strong desire to lead the Beaufort County school district.
Rodriguez said he spent four days in February exploring all corners of the county and talking to people about the school district.
“I fell in love,” he said of the area.
Dade repeatedly referred to the district as “family.”
In an interview after the forum, he talked about his excitement at the possibility of bringing positive change to the district.
“The potential here I think is honestly through the roof,” he said. “Where we are in our current state and where we are five years from now could be a remarkable testament to a community coming together.”
Attendees of the forum were asked to fill out feedback forms about Dade and Rodriguez.
The school board expects to make a decision about their choice for superintendent on Tuesday night.