Local officials are learning, in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida, to keep their heads down. And Dr. Earlean Smiley, now serving as the interim superintendent for Broward County Public Schools, seemingly is pursuing the lowest of profiles.
Since taking over, Smiley has said little publicly about her goals for the district and has promised not to seek the position as permanent superintendent. City & State has so far been rebuffed by the district in attempts to interview Smiley. Questions to McPherson & Jacobson, the search firm for the new superintendent, have been directed back to the district.
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During a recent press conference, she kept things friendly and inoffensive, emphasizing a need for safety and giving teachers what they need to be successful. She said she wants all students to know they are loved and cared about.
Broward’s school district has more than 270,000 students and an annual budget of $4 billion. In a statement, the school board said it had “launched a national search for a permanent superintendent and … is seeking a highly qualified visionary superintendent to lead the district and serve as a student-oriented, transformational leader, who will successfully address concerns and issues communicated by the entire school community and residents throughout the county.”
They’re hoping to avoid the serial controversies of her predecessor, Vickie Cartwright, who had been strongly criticized by the state Department of Education before being fired by the board. She was blasted in 2021 for the district’s decision to defy state orders banning mask mandates in schools and then following the release of a grand jury report, which is the rationale DeSantis used to replace four school board members. The chair of the Florida Board of Education also said Cartwright was too slow in making changes, including on school safety, and that she should be removed.
When he believes they are not doing their job, DeSantis has shown no hesitation in suspending elected officials from office over the last few years, including Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, Okaloosa County Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson and Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. Israel and Jackson were eventually removed by the state Senate; Warren is fighting his suspension in the courts.
DeSantis also took out four of Broward’s school board members – Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson – for “incompetence, neglect of duty, and misuse of authority” in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at the county’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 17 staff and students were killed.
Whoever gets to be superintendent will face huge challenges: The board wants to improve academic performance across the district. Members also want more students to pick public schools over private and charter schools. And there have been problems with the construction program and vendors.
Who is Earlean Smiley?
According to information provided by the district, she began teaching in Broward Schools in 1974 and served as an assistant principal from 1987 to 1991, and then a high school principal from 1994 to 2000. She was principal of Blanche Ely High School, where current board member Torey Alston was a student when Smiley was there.
Smiley swore him in to his District 2 board seat when he was one of four people that DeSantis placed in office to replace four women he removed. She was deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction from 2000 to 2010. Smiley then became superintendent for the McCormick County Public School District in South Carolina from 2010 to 2013.
Smiley was first considered for the interim position by Alston. At the time, he was serving as chair. Board member and current chair Lori Alhadeff also recommended Smiley and later Daniel Foganholi made the motion to hire her as interim superintendent.
Candidates to succeed her have until April 27 to apply. Andrea Mesina, CEO of the Florida School Boards Association, said the role of a superintendent is often very difficult and those who succeed need to have a CEO mentality.
“A school board superintendent is someone who can manage processes and systems,” Mesina said. “School districts are complex systems. We have seen successful superintendents who have experience teaching moving into administrative roles. We have seen superintendents with business experience become superintendents. A school system is usually the largest asset a community has and the stakes are very high.
“A superintendent is like the CEO of a large organization. They are running an educational mission, a large chain of restaurants, (that is,) the cafeterias, (as well as) maintenance, construction and security. They need to have a background in finance, and they are dealing with political situations. To be effective, a superintendent must be able to build a strong team. The superintendent must have people on this team that can be trusted and can run the various aspects of a school district.”
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers city government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.