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Outgoing superintendent proudest of COVID-19 response, says 'thank you' to critics

Dr. Donald Fennoy is resigning from as the superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District.{ } He said he wants to spend more time with his family. (CBS12)
Dr. Donald Fennoy is resigning from as the superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District. He said he wants to spend more time with his family. (CBS12)
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In a surprise, the superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District is resigning.

Dr. Donald Fennoy II took over the executive position right after the Parkland shooting in 2018, and managed it through the worst of the pandemic.

CBS12 News reporter Andrew Lofholm sat down one-on-one with Dr. Fennoy about the job he did, what he says to critics and what’s next.

He made the decision to step down just a few days ago. Last Friday, he met with his family and they decided it was time for him to step down and spend more time at home.

At 41 years old, he became the superintendent, less than a month after the Parkland shooting. It was one of two major crises he would lead the district through.

“What advice would you give that Dr. Fennoy on that day one knowing what you know now about the job?” Lofholm asked him.

“I honestly...the advice I would give me, always do what you think is best,” he responded.

Earlier this year, the district was sued, accused for overusing the Baker Act.

The district said they were following the state laws passed after Parkland with the goal of preventing another mass shooting.

“We don’t have any regrets. You have to remember those processes are there for a reason. There’s a reason why the state has those laws in place. We’re doing fine on the front,” Dr. Fennoy said.

READ MORE: Palm Beach County School District says Baker Act report left out critical information

Schoolboard Chairman Frank Barbieri was among the critics of Dr. Fennoy’s handling of the pandemic.

“I was critical of him in last year’s evaluation based on what I saw as some shortcomings in the preparation to open the schools during the pandemic,” he said.

“Since we're talking schools, what letter grade would you give him?" Lofholm asked.

“A 'B,'" Barbieri said.

Lofholm followed up with Dr. Fennoy, “What do you say to the critics of your handling of the pandemic, especially early on?"

“Well, thank you for the criticism. I think any type of feedback is an opportunity to improve your practice. It was COVID. There was no playbook. The criticism is based on emotion,” Dr. Fennoy said.

In retrospect, Dr. Fennoy says the district helped set the national standard with how to operate with the pandemic with kids back in the classroom.

“What are you proudest of as your legacy as superintendent?” Lofholm asked.

“I’m proud of the team during COVID. Now that people can look at it, my team has been acknowledged and given praise all over the country for their work,” he said.

Requiring masks was a polarizing issue that brought passionate parents out by the hundreds to meetings. Even the angriest parents, he’s OK with.

“Maybe that’s why people kind of look at me weird because I don’t take it personally," Fennoy said. "If there was something that I felt could be detrimental to my child, yeah, Papa Bear will come out."

The School Board came under fire when they included a line in an equity statement to acknowledge "white advantage."

After heavy criticism from parents, the Board removed it.

“Were you disappointed that the white advantage line was dropped from the equity statement?” Lofholm asked Fennoy.

“For me it’s about the work in my mind. Are we doing everything that we can as a school system to make sure every child has opportunity to excel? Fighting over a bunch of words is kind of silly to me because for me, it’s about the execution of the work. There’s been a lot of pretty words in this country for a long time that have not yielded results for a lot of people," he said. "So how about we flip that and do actions and see if we can do that?”

Dr. Fennoy said he doesn’t have anything lined up. He plans on spending more time at home. Next month, he said he’ll walk his daughter to her first day of kindergarten right here in the Palm Beach County school system.

“We had a big family meeting and my mother was like you do realize you have all kinds of options. And frankly, I think I want to spend more time with my family,” he said.

What’s next?

For now, Dr. Fennoy will officially no longer be superintendent come Oct. 11. The board could move that date up. Barbieri wants to conduct a national search for the next superintendent, but also consider internal candidates. It’ll be their fifth search in the last 10 years.

“I did not expect him to resign,” Barbieri said about Dr. Fennoy. “I think based on the lack of experience to handle a large district and face many, many difficult obstacles that he faced as a first-time superintendent, I think that was very challenging for him.”

“What do you think about that turnover and do you think there’s something that needs to improve in order to keep a superintendent longer two or three years?” Lofholm asked Barbieri.

“The national average seems to be three years for a superintendent in a large district. I just think the challenges that are placed on superintendents in today’s climate is very extreme,” he said.

Barbieri said he wants an experienced candidate with a business background. It is the 10th largest district in the country. The budget is around $4 billion.

The reason behind Dr. Fennoy’s decision

Dr. Fennoy comes from a military family. His parents drove down from South Carolina last week to visit. They were preparing to leave Saturday but the car broke down Friday. He shares a passion with dad for cars, so they were fixing it in the garage.

“That was the moment I realized my father was getting older. He couldn’t lift certain things, he had knee surgery a couple weeks ago. He’s older. He’s my hero. He used to wear uniforms every day that he went off to war with. He’s my GI Joe,” he said.

Combined with his wife losing both her parents at the beginning of the pandemic, his parents' mortality was setting in.

His son, 12-year-old Donald III, asked to help fix the broken-down car.

“When the littlest Donald asked to participate, I took a step back and my dad started teaching him how to turn the wrench. And the first thing he teaches us in the family is righty tighty, lefty loosey. That was the first time my son had got that from my grandfather. So I’m sitting back and I started taking these pictures. You have these three generations of Fennoy men circling around our passion,” he said.

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They had the family meeting later that day and the decision was made. He would resign.

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