Now that Allen Zeman has won a seat on the Broward County School Board, second best isn’t good enough, he says. In fact, he’s not settling for anything short of excellence.
“We are the only district in South Florida that is not A rated. We are B rated. We have to be A rated,” Zeman told City & State this week, referring to the state’s grading of school districts.
“We need to make more use of best practices,” he added. “We need to focus more on academic pursuits and more instructional time. We need to give staff additional resources. We are only one percentage point away from an A.”
Zeman, a Navy veteran and CEO of a data analytics company that focuses on workforce issues, narrowly triumphed last Tuesday 51%-49% in a runoff election against suspended board member Donna Korn.
That was after Korn took 30.5% of the vote in a first election with three other candidates, including Zeman, who received 30%. The contest moved to a runoff because no one came away with more than 50%.
Zeman now joins a board that has been tarnished by controversy. And it’s a high-stakes job: The Associated Press reported this week that Broward’s school district has more than 270,000 students and an annual budget of $4 billion.
After the February 2018 mass shooting at the county’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a statewide grand jury recommended that Korn and three other members be suspended for incompetence, neglect of duty and misuse of authority. A former student of the school killed 17 students and staff members.
Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Korn, Patricia Good, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson on Aug. 26, referring to their lack of action after the shooting as “a pattern of emboldening unacceptable behavior including fraud and mismanagement, across the district.”
DeSantis then installed temporary replacements, including former Broward County commissioner Torey Alston, who acted as a sort of ‘reform board.’ The panel this week voted 5-4 to oust Schools Superintendent Dr. Vickie Cartwright “after board members expressed anger over scathing audits related to two district vendors,” the Sun-Sentinel reported.
The newspaper also reported Tuesday night that the board rejected Alston's suggestion for an interim superintendent. Between that and her contract requirements, Cartwright will stay on the job for at least another 60 days.
Zeman had said he believed it was important to give her a chance to address some of the concerns school board members had shared in an earlier meeting. On Tuesday, he declined to comment on Cartwright’s firing, saying because he was not yet on the board it wouldn’t be appropriate.
Security, enrollment now top concerns
Zeman now is looking to the district’s future, saying he wants to focus on its decline in enrollment. Over the past four years, there has been a drop of about 20,000 fewer students in Broward schools. He wants them back.
“Even though public schools are funded by the government, they are still subject to market forces. We need to improve what we are delivering to students. We need to give parents a reason to want to enroll their children in our schools,” he said.
And, in the shadow of Parkland, security is a paramount concern. As a Navy veteran, he says it’s vital to think like an enemy would in planning the defense of students and school properties.
“We need to double down on security and safety. We need to work on responses to threats. We need a stronger approach to safety and think like a person who would attack a school,” Zeman said, but he would not disclose specifics of how he wants to prevent attacks on schools.
Zeman, CEO of the CHCI data analytics company, says he has worked with former President Bill Clinton, high level government officials, foreign leaders and corporate executives. He specializes in “data-informed decision making.”
He attended Broward public schools from K-12 and attended Florida State University, ultimately receiving a doctorate in econometrics, defined as “the application of statistical methods to the study of economic data and problems.”
In the Navy, he served in Baghdad and did a stint as chief economist for the reconstruction of Iraq. He was selected to senior executive status, led the Training and Education system and served on the Department of Defense School Board.
A total of four new members including Zeman will be sworn in to the Broward School Board on Nov. 22. The others are Rod Velez, a property manager; Jeff Holness, a tutoring business owner; and Brenda Fam, a lawyer who also has worked as a flight attendant.
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.