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Quick transition of Broward schools superintendent raises questions

Peter Licata plans to start negotiating his exit as Broward schools superintendent Friday and could leave with a payout of about $192,000.

He could also leave with a smaller amount or stay on as an employee until the end of the year, depending on what he and the School Board agree to.

Licata, who has only worked for the district for nine months, announced at an April 16 meeting he planned to retire Dec. 31 due to a health issue, which he declined to discuss publicly. The board agreed at the same meeting to replace Licata, 59, with Howard Hepburn, 45, who has been deputy superintendent for the district for the past eight months.

The School Board’s vote was taken at a meeting that, while publicly noticed, didn’t have anything on the agenda about a superintendent change. The board’s action has drawn criticism from some legal and open meetings experts as well as School Board member Daniel Foganholi, who voted against the proposal.

“Tuesday didn’t sit well with me and still hasn’t sat well with me,” Foganholi told the Sun Sentinel. “I have multiple people in the district and in our community reaching out because they felt they just watched a show that was extremely staged, but not everybody had the script.”

Foganholi said his concern isn’t with Hepburn specifically, who he says he has a good relationship with, but the process.

Broward County School Superintendent Dr. Peter Licata discusses school safety on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Broward County School Superintendent Dr. Peter Licata announced he’s retiring due to health concerns. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Other School Board members say they needed to take quick action to replace Licata and that any payments related to his separation are subject to negotiation.

Licata will first negotiate with Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff on Friday, and then whatever is agreed to will come back to the full board for approval later. Alhadeff also plans to negotiate Hepburn’s new contract that same day.

Because Licata informed the board that he wanted to leave in December, and the School Board decided to replace him immediately, Licata and his lawyers may argue he’s entitled to severance and other pay outlined under the “termination without cause” provision of his contract, said Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

Under that provision, Licata, who makes $350,000 annually, would be given 60 days’ notice ($57,534) and 20 weeks’ severance pay ($134,615).

“He can say, ‘I retired effective Dec. 31, so you’re terminating me. You’re not accepting my retirement,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said he expects the board to pay the severance as “the cost of doing business” rather than get into a potential legal battle with Licata. The Sun Sentinel asked Licata whether he would seek the full severance amount in his contract.

“That is for my legal team to discuss at the negotiations,” he said.

Severance pay is normally given to employees who are involuntarily terminated, not those who decide to leave. The School Board hadn’t had any discussions about terminating Licata’s contract prior to Tuesday, although he had faced criticism from Foganholi and board member Torey Alston, both appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Now the School Board will likely have to pay two superintendent salaries for a while, another issue Foganholi criticized. School Board member Allen Zeman has suggested keeping Licata on in a transitional role as a mentor to Hepburn through Dec. 31 in lieu of severance.

Alston told the Sun Sentinel he supported Tuesday’s action because he did indeed want to terminate Licata’s contract and replace him with Hepburn. But he doesn’t agree with paying Licata a large amount of severance. When Licata’s contract was discussed in July, Alston asked the board to offer severance on a sliding scale, depending on how long Licata stayed, with nothing if he lasted less than a year. The School Board voted 6-3 at that time to reject that proposal.

“Twenty weeks is the industry standard. If we were to lower that, we’re saying to Dr. Licata we don’t think he’s valuable enough to get the industry standard,” Board member Debbi Hixon said at the time.

Alston told the Sun Sentinel on Thursday, “If they had followed my lead, thousands of dollars would be saved” and could have been used to help increase pay for about 14,000 non-instructional employees who haven’t gotten raises this year.

Hixon told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she believes the board should pay a departing administrator full severance only in situations where the board breaks the contract. She said she plans to ask board members Tuesday for guidance on what they will and won’t agree to before Alhadeff starts negotiations.

“I don’t know that 20 weeks makes sense,” she said. “I want to be fair, but this isn’t a termination without cause. It’s a mutual-separation agreement. It doesn’t have to be a set number of weeks.”

Foganholi said he was troubled by how quickly Tuesday’s vote happened and that neither he nor the public had any advanced warning of the vote. He faced similar criticism after he made a motion in November 2022 to fire then-Superintendent Vickie Cartwright without giving any notice ahead of time. That motion passed 5-4.

After some new members joined a few weeks later, the School Board voted in December 2022 to rescind Cartwright’s termination. Those who supported that action cited concerns over whether the lack of notice violated the spirit of the state’s Sunshine Law, which governs open meetings. General Counsel Marylin Batista told the board she believed the November 2022 vote was in compliance since the action happened during a publicly advertised meeting..

The board voted to mutually separate from Cartwright a few weeks later, and gave advanced notice of the action.

Foganholi said it’s hypocritical for some board members who complained about a lack of public notice before to decide last week to sever ties with Licata and appoint Hepburn without public notice.

Alhadeff, asked about the surprise vote, told the Sun Sentinel in a text, “the retirement announcement and subsequent Board action took place during a publicly noticed meeting.”

But the lack of specific notice about the superintendent change is troubling, said Barbara Petersen, a lawyer and director of the Center for Government Accountability, a government watchdog group. She said the Attorney General’s Office has determined that an agency can take up an item that wasn’t included in the public notice, but recommends that any votes be delayed to a subsequent meeting.

“So while the lack of notice isn’t, on its face, a violation of the Sunshine Law, it is certainly a violation of the spirit and intent of the law,” she said. “And the lack of notice is even more egregious when it relates to something as important as the resignation and appointment of a school superintendent.”

Licata asked Alhadeff the night before his announcement to keep the news quiet, according to a text exchange obtained by the Sun Sentinel through a public records request.

“Can you please keep that confidential til I announce so we can be on same page and can’t have holes poked into it,” he asked at 6:17 p.m.

“Yes,” Alhadeff responded.

Licata told the Sun Sentinel on Monday, “I did not want incorrect information or speculation about my health or why I was retiring out there. I wanted it to be announced by me with my clearly defined announcement done on Tuesday to the Board, staff, and community.”

Zeman told the Sun Sentinel he didn’t know about Licata’s announcement ahead of the April 16 meeting, although Licata had informed School Board members confidentially in December of his health condition. He said even if Licata wanted to stay on as superintendent through the end of the year, that might not work for the board.

“It sounds serious and like we’re not going to be able to have his service for the 70 to 80 hours per week like we need him,” Zeman said.

Although Licata said in his letter he would stay until Dec. 31, he encouraged the School Board to quickly replace him with Hepburn. Several board members said Hepburn has possible job opportunities elsewhere.

“This allows us to potentially lock in an incredible talent, as well as make sure we do have some stability as we move forward,” Licata told the board.

On April 15, the day before the Broward School Board meeting, Hepburn submitted his application for a superintendent job in Duval County, which included a letter of recommendation from Licata dated that same day.

“It is with great enthusiasm and without reservation that I offer my highest recommendation for Dr. Howard Hepburn for the position of Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools,” Licata wrote. “I am confident that he will continue to make a profound and lasting impact on the lives of students, educators, and communities throughout the district. To me, there is really no other logical choice for your next Superintendent than Dr. Howard Hepburn.”

Even though Hepburn had only been at his Broward job for eight months, he told the Sun Sentinel he was ready to become superintendent, which is why he applied to Duval.

“I love complex challenging environments and superintendent jobs don’t open up that often in the state of Florida,” Hepburn said Friday. “I didn’t want to pass up on these opportunities when they arise.”

Alhadeff also wrote Hepburn a letter of recommendation for that job April 12, and cited that as a reason at the April 16 meeting why the board should give him a three-year contract.

“I am afraid we are going to lose him to another school district to be superintendent,” Alhadeff told the School Board. “We have a diamond right here and we need to keep him and make him permanent superintendent.”

Several Broward board members said they were happy with Hepburn’s performance and would rather him stay in Broward than be searching elsewhere.

Newly appointed Broward Schools Superintendent Howard Hepburn listens to proceedings of the School Board on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata, who was hired less than a year ago, made a surprising announcement Tuesday that he plans to retire due to health issues. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Newly appointed Broward Schools Superintendent Howard Hepburn listens to proceedings of the School Board on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata, who was hired less than a year ago, made a surprising announcement April 16 that he plans to retire due to health issues. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“In his time with BCPS, Dr. Hepburn has been an influential voice whose leadership, knowledge and experience has been instrumental in helping shape the direction of our District,” Alhadeff said. “The Board acted in the best interest of our students and families by ensuring stability and continuity of the very important work happening in our schools and throughout our District.”

Hepburn, who is the district’s fifth superintendent in three years, said he understands that some may be critical of how he was hired but he’s focusing on doing the best job possible.

“I’m here to listen to those concerns, and I understand the difficulties that have happened in the past,” he said. “But my sole function is to make sure we are on the right path” to improving the district.

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