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News Analysis: School board chairman deserves credit for putting district on positive path

Laura Zorc, Susan Moxley and Katie Nall

The accomplishment that stands out most in Laura Zorc’s first year as the school district’s chairman of the board was the way she handled the sometimes-daily drama that led to then-Superintendent Mark Rendell’s departure this past spring.

She realized Rendell was overmatched by the job, saw through his plan to pressure the board into extending his contract, and thwarted his disgraceful attempt to collect a severance package from the district, even though he already had agreed to take a principal’s position in Cocoa Beach.

She was smart. She was tough. She was the no-nonsense leader our school board needed at a critical juncture.

For that alone, Zorc deserved the vote of confidence she received last month when the board rewarded her with a second term as chairman.

“Being the chairman is stressful, especially when you’re doing it for the first time,” Zorc said last week, days after the board unanimously approved hiring David Moore, who spent the past six years as an assistant superintendent at Miami-Dade Public Schools, to replace Rendell.

“This board came into a lot of chaos,” she added. “Almost from the moment we were sworn in and I was elected chairman, I was managing one crisis after another.”

The Rendell soap opera, which generated the most headlines, was merely one of them.

The yearlong tumult, much of it connected to Rendell’s struggles as superintendent, included wrongheaded suspensions, costly investigations and unnecessary resignations, many of which left key positions – such as chief financial officer of a district with a $300 million budget – vacant for far too long.

Under Rendell, the position of assistant superintendent for human resources was eliminated, even though the district had 2,200 full-time employees, many of whom had complained about a culture of bullying, intimidation and retaliation.

There were whistleblower complaints, an impasse in labor negotiations with the teachers union, an alarmingly high teacher-turnover rate, budget management blunders, a reduction in the district’s bond rating and an ongoing failure to fully comply with a 1960s federal desegregation order.

Then, after Rendell announced in April that he was resigning, giving only 30 days’ notice, Zorc and the board were forced to embark on a hurried search for an interim superintendent.

Led by Zorc, the board hired a stellar person for the interim position, Susan Moxley, who has been an outstanding leader, helping get the schools back on track, and now the district welcomes a new, immensely promising superintendent.

“The board had to navigate through some very rough waters over the past year, and Laura got them through it,” said Charles Searcy, a former school board chairman. “She kept the board moving forward. She earned a second term as chairman.”

That second term is off to a rousing start with the hiring of Moore, whom board members have described as a “rock star” superintendent worth the $180,000 annual salary the district will pay him over the next 4 ½ years.

Though some might think the price is high for a first-time superintendent – the terms of Moore’s contract were negotiated by Zorc and School Board Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta – the board would’ve been foolish to risk losing their No. 1 choice over a few thousand dollars.

Moore might not be worth $180,000 now, but if he proves to be everything this board believes he can be, he’ll be worth significantly more in a year or two, and we’ll be getting a bargain.

Moore’s background and credentials are as impressive as his performance in job interviews. The potential for something special is there.

“If he gets the job done as we believe he will,” Zorc said, “he’s worth it.”

Based on what we know of him so far, he’s worth his salary, which is $5,000 more than the board planned to offer. He’s worth the $20,000 the district has agreed to pay to cover his moving expenses and the cost of temporary housing during the height of Vero Beach’s busy season. He’s worth the $850-per-month car allowance.

Fact is, the board knew it couldn’t afford to get this wrong – not after a previous board botched the hiring of Moore’s predecessor, Rendell, whose bad decisions cost the district millions of dollars.

That’s why Zorc’s board conducted its search early and made this hire now, rather than wait for the first weeks of 2020 when other districts will be competing for candidates.

That’s also why, once Moore became the obvious choice, Zorc insisted D’Agresta and interim superintendent Susan Moxley keep the board members informed about the status of the negotiations and, ultimately, the terms of the contract.

“I did what the board members wanted me to do,” Zorc said.

Moxley, who has done a terrific job of cleaning up the administrative and financial mess Rendell left behind, praised the board’s decision to hire Moore, calling him an “excellent and exciting choice.”

She said she is “extremely optimistic” about the district’s future under the leadership of Zorc and Moore, a transformational educator who in 2017 led a successful effort to turn around six failing Miami-Dade schools.

Certainly, we can expect Moore to make an immediate impact – on standards and policies, tone and discourse, culture and perception. We also can expect to see a more professional and productive relationship between the new superintendent and a battle-tested board.

“I think you’ll see a level of trust that was missing with the previous superintendent,” Zorc said, “so the board won’t feel a need to get involved in district’s day-to-day operations.”

However, while Moore begins to leave his mark on the district, Zorc and the other board members must continue to grow into their positions, setting aside past personal differences and political affiliations that have no place on the dais.

“We’ve been through tough situations and we learned from them,” Zorc said. “I know I took on a lot as chairman, and I took all the criticism that came with it. But I’m OK with that because we’re in a much better place now.”

And she got them there.

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