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Palm Beach County schools Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy explains 'heavy' decision to resign

Fennoy stepping down effective Oct. 11 to spend more time with family
Palm Beach County Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy speaks to WPTV with tear in his eye, July 14, 2021.jpg
Posted at 11:14 AM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 17:30:36-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A visibly emotional Dr. Donald Fennoy admitted on Wednesday the last 24 hours have been overwhelming and touching after the longtime educator announced he's resigning as superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County.

"When I made the decision, I just didn't think nobody cared that much," Fennoy said. "And that's not been the last 24 hours. It's been very heavy. People were very pleased with my leadership."

In a letter to parents, school board members, and staffers, Fennoy said he's stepping down effective Oct. 11 after three years as superintendent of the tenth-largest school district in the country.

Fennoy, who signed a five-year contract in 2018, said the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated his departure "quite a bit."

"Most people would argue that I probably dealt with more in three years than most people have done in their superintendent career," Fennoy said.

INTERVIEW WITH FENNOY:

Palm Beach County superintendent interview

Those daunting challenges included improving school security in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in 2018, increasing teacher pay, improving graduation rates, and most recently, navigating the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was tough for people. People didn't know what was going on. People were scared. People were dying," Fennoy said. "I'm just trying to keep pushing the ship forward and putting one foot in front of the other. Leading the team."

Describing himself as a "wartime leader" and "father first," Fennoy said he recently made the decision to resign during a staycation in Palm Beach County with his wife and two children following this year's in-person graduation ceremonies.

"I said, if I'm going to do it, I need to do it now to give the board an opportunity to select an interim," Fennoy said. "I'm very happy that my family is happy. And really that's all that matters at this point."

The superintendent exercised a clause in his contract which requires him to give the school board 90 days notice if he plans to leave.

"There comes a point where you have to start thinking about everyone else," Fennoy said. "I think I've left it all on the field."

"It was very unexpected," Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said of Fennoy's resignation. "Being the superintendent of a very large district like ours is a very taxing job."

Barbieri said Fennoy has dealt with countless obstacles over the last 15 months, and made the difficult decision to resign for personal reasons.

"While he was on vacation last week, he had the opportunity to spend time with his parents and his children," Barbieri said. "And recognized that time is fleeting."

INTERVIEW WITH BARBIERI:

School board chairman talks Fennoy

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

Before becoming superintendent, Fennoy was the School District of Palm Beach County's chief operating officer for two years.

Fennoy made history in 2018 by becoming the first African American superintendent in Palm Beach County history.

Fennoy's tenure in the top spot has come with challenges, including criticism of his handling of the return to in-person education and the district's face mask mandate in schools, along with the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association calling for his removal last September.

Fennoy said those criticisms were fair and were a product of the "emotional moments" of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's the nature of the job, right? When no one knows an answer, everyone has the answer," Fennoy said. "Stop worrying about the right answer. Do what you think is right, because we're not gonna please everyone. It's impossible."

But with the contention also came success under Fennoy's leadership. He oversaw major mental health and school security changes within the School District of Palm Beach County, including having a school district police officer at all 179 schools in the district.

Fennoy also helped spearhead a 2018 election referendum in which residents approved a property tax increase that allowed teachers to get pay raises, along with money for school improvements.

The superintendent also oversaw critical improvements to help students adapt and adjust to the virtual style of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, including spending more than $20 million at the start of the 2020/21 academic year to make sure every child had a laptop who needed one, and the creation of the WiFi Mesh Network to deliver free high-speed, high-quality Internet to roughly 25,000 students in need.

"I've been in education for 20 years. I've had an amazing career. I'm still very young and I have a lot of work ahead of me. So I'm looking forward to the next phase," Fennoy said.

As for that next phase, Fennoy said he plans to stay in Palm Beach County to spend more time with his family and support his children, including joining the Parent Teacher Association at his daughter's elementary school.

Fennoy also serves as a volunteer advisory board member on the National Association of School and Campus Police Chiefs, a non-profit organization started by former Palm Beach County School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow.

"Safety and security is very important to me," Fennoy said. "Schools are targets and we need to make sure that, if we have information that we can share to help and maybe save someone else's life, why not?"

RELATED: Timeline of recent Palm Beach County superintendents

Admitting that "the COVID experience isn't over," Fennoy said his top priorities for the 2021/22 academic year -- which is slated to begin on Aug. 10 -- are successfully opening brick-and-mortar schools and helping with the transition as the district chooses a new superintendent.

In terms of his successor, Fennoy feels it's going to be very difficult to conduct a national search, as many major cities across the country are also searching for superintendents to lead them through this next stage of education.

"We have all the tools necessary to be successful," Fennoy said. "All of the teams are running on all cylinders."

RELATED: Palm Beach County School Board chairman wants national search for new superintendent

As Fennoy looks toward the future, he said he's taken aback by the overwhelming support he's receiving, and is determined to continue playing a pivotal role in the lives of children.

"I'm actually struggling with how emotional a lot of my employees are. I just didn't realize I had that much of an impact on them," Fennoy said. "I'm just a young man that just goes to work hard every day, and I just wanna do what's best for kids."

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