Fifth superintendent candidate faces School Board

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — All five of the formerly unknown candidates hoping to take over for retiring Indian River School Superintendent Dr. Harry La Cava have now been interviewed, with only one very well-known prospect remaining.

A final decision could be imminent when the School Board reconvenes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to review the information gleaned from the six candidates. Or if the Board members cannot coalesce around one person, they may narrow the field down to two and proceed with a final round of questioning. Over the past week, the community and the five members of the Indian River County School Board have met Joseph Burke, Gregory Adkins, E. Wayne Gent, Anne Garrett and just Thursday morning, Joanne Horton.

Horton, a resident of Foley, Ala. retired in 2009 from her post as superintendent of Talladega City Schools in Alabama. She also served one year as superintendent of the Frenchman RE-3 School District in Colorado.

Overall, Horton came across as enthusiastic and candid. She gave straight answers, often punctuated with humor.

A 30-year educator, Horton described herself as a “people person” and while she characterized that as a strength, she said her penchant for wanting to get “lots of input” into a situation before making a decision — even if it slows things down a bit — could be seen as a weakness by critics.

Horton was asked by School Board Member Karen Disney-Brombach to tell the story of why she brought former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in as a graduation keynote speaker.

“Because we can’t do that,” Disney-Brombach said, referring to what could be construed as the political nature of Rice’s presence at a public school graduation.

Horton said that the Talladega City School system is racially diverse “About 50-50 white-black ratio,” and that she brought Rice, who hails from Alabama, in as a role model for economically challenged students, especially female students of all races.

She said she wanted the students “to see that there’s another world beyond Talladega.”

“So all of this was coming to my mind when I was looking for a graduation speaker,” she said. “That was the reason why I wanted a minority person who had done well to come.”

Horton beamed as she told the story of students being inspired to education and greater heights by meeting a famous, successful person who looked like them and came from their state.

When asked to relay an experience with a student or in a classroom, Horton told about mentoring a student athlete and helping her make the decision to accept a basketball scholarship at a local junior college instead of going straight to a large university. Horton said she emphasized to the student that she could both play basketball and focus on her education.

After she retired, Horton said she drove the 30 miles to the girl’s college for nearly two years to “watch her play ball,” and was happy when she moved on to get a basketball scholarship to the University of Alabama.

The School Board asked Horton to summarize her knowledge of and experience with finances, grant writing and management, charter schools and unions. Horton said she had not dealt with either charter schools or unions, but assured the School Board she would research and get up to speed.

Horton said she would work hard to get the “good news” out about the school system and that she would spend the first couple of months “meeting and building relationships with the family, the school family.”

She asked the School Board some tough questions, including one about the “culture” of the district.

“We are struggling to know who we are,” said Karen Disney-Brombach, who added that some priorities are to become more professional and student-oriented. She said the students are “thriving despite” the district’s shortcomings and struggles.

The interviews have been conducted in public, with only the current Assistant Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Fran Adams left to be interviewed at 3 p.m. Thursday. Adams came to work for the School District in 1983 as an elementary school teacher.

Adams is seen as the favorite for the job, as she’s served numerous times as interim superintendent and is widely respected.

Vero Beach resident Marcia Littlejohn and her husband, Karl Zimmerman sat in on all the interviews and though Zimmerman declined to comment due to his position as Treasurer of the Indian River Charter High School, Littlejohn ventured to put the day’s events into some context.

“The process has been phenomenal, the fact that it was opened up and deliberate and I was very impressed with the School Board,” she said. “It’s something that every single person in the county should be watching to learn more about the school system.”

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