Interim superintendent starts early to fill spot at top of Palm Beach County school district

First day was Tuesday

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It didn't take long for Bill Malone, the Palm Beach County School District's interim superintendent, to figure out one of the perks of the new gig.

Standing in Art Johnson's old third floor office, there was nothing but a few office scraps - a paper clip, a penny - and a small amount of dust. But there was something else: a bathroom.

"I didn't know that was there," Malone said. "That was nice."

The county has known only one superintendent the last 10 years -- Johnson. Now, as of Tuesday, that job belongs to Malone, a 21-year Army veteran, for the next six months until a permanent superintendent is found.

Malone, 68, admitted he didn't sleep very well Monday night. Not because he was nervous about taking over the reins of the nation's 11th largest school district, one that is more fractured and cash-strapped than in recent memory. He didn't sleep well because he was "energized" to get started.

"I'm excited," said Malone, the district' former chief operating officer. "I think it's going to be good."

After his 50-minute commute from Hobe Sound, where he's living with his mother-in-law, Malone arrived to work at 6:45 a.m. He looked around the other offices, but no one was in yet. As an early riser, Malone said he likes the quiet time to get his work done.

"I'm usually pretty productive at that time," he said.

Malone met school board Chairman Frank Barbieri for breakfast for about an hour. After leaving for breakfast, Malone said some district staffers cracked he might not return considering the Herculean task he faces in helping to balance the district's $2.5 billion operating budget and meeting the state-mandated class-size law.

"A couple of people wondered if I had given up so quickly," Malone said, laughing. "I don't think they were serious, but they teased me about that."

As expected, most of Malone's day was spent settling in and saying hello to old colleagues and meeting dozens of new ones. He said he met about 80 district employees. Malone also spent part of his day learning how to work his computer, his Samsung cellphone and his office phone.

"The office phone is going to be a little tricky," he said. "It has speed-dialing capabilities, conferencing and three lines."

But Malone also got some real work done. He said one of his top priorities this week is to meet with every school board member. He hopes to have spoken with all seven by Monday.

Malone also attended three meetings and crammed for Wednesday's school board meeting, which is scheduled to include a budget workshop.

"It's important to me that the meeting go well," Malone said. "More important to me is the discussion goes well."

Malone also met with the task force charged with increasing the graduation rate among black males.

"That's an extremely important issue that needs to get fixed," Malone said.

Malone characterized his first day as "hectic, but productive." He admitted at times it was a little overwhelming.

"When somebody has four pieces of paper under your nose at one time, all of them needing to be signed, it could be a little more than a person could handle," Malone said. "But that passed."

Malone said he had no idea what time he would head back home.

"It doesn't look like it's going to be soon," he said late in the day.

But Malone said that's fine with him. Since coming back to Palm Beach County from his retirement home in High Spring, northwest of Gainesville, he said he's received nothing but positive vibes.

"I'm very optimistic," Malone said. "The mood of the district is, we are where we are, so let's go forward and let's not look back. We've got work to do."

kevin_thompson@pbpost.com

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