Avossa to principals: School board members are not your bosses

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa is reminding principals not to take orders from school board members, pointing out that individual board members don’t have any administrative role in school operations.

In an email last week to the school district’s principals and department heads, Avossa wrote that state law “does not allow board members to direct staff as individuals.”

“If a board member attempts to provide you direction, please inform them of this letter and direct the inquiry to me,” he wrote.

In an interview, Avossa said that the reminder was not prompted by any specific incident. It’s the first time he’s put the warning in writing, but he said he gave a similar direction in a speech last year.

It’s an effort, he said, to avoid a dynamic “that gets us in trouble.”

Ex-School Board member Mike Murgio

It was less than two years ago that the actions of an individual school board member became an issue in one of the school district’s biggest crises in recent history – a weeks-long school bus fiasco at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.

In that case, the botched implementation of new bus-routing software caused mangled and flawed redesigns of hundreds of routes, throwing the busing system into chaos and forcing thousands of children to miss classes or spend hours waiting for buses to take them home.

During a subsequent investigation, district officials who oversaw the botched software implementation blamed then-board member Mike Murgio, who had been privately lobbying them to create an app for parents’ to track their children’s buses in real time.

The investigation, conducted by a private attorney hired by Avossa, faulted Murgio’s “undue influence.”

“It would be naive to ignore the influential impact that the board member’s advocacy for this project had on the operation side of the district,” the investigation said.

Murgio denied that his lobbying was to blame. And indeed, the attorney who conducted the investigation admitted in a recorded deposition that he concluded that Steven Bonino, the district’s chief of support operations, was “the most active decision maker” in the botched rollout, records show.

Avossa denied that his warning was connected in any way to that event, but he said it was important in any school district to be vigilant about patrolling the boundaries between superintendents and board members. At its annual retreats, Avossa and board members regularly discuss how to balance their roles.

“The thing that gets us in trouble is when you take direction from one person,” he said, referring to board members.

Here is Avossa’s complete email:

Dear Principals, Directors, and Administrators:

This letter is intended as an annual reminder regarding the role of School Board members in the operations of the School District.

The Legislature in 2016 enacted legislation specifically providing the authority of the School Board to include “Visit the schools, observe the management and instruction, give suggestions for improvement, and advise citizens with the view of promoting interest in education and improving the school.”  However, this provision to provide suggestions for improvements is to be done by the Board as a collective body and does not allow Board members to direct staff as individuals.

Please recall that under the Florida Statutes the Superintendent has the responsibility for the administration and management of the schools and is responsible for directing the work of employees. The Superintendent also has the duty to visit the schools, observe the management and instruction, and give suggestions for improvement.

Thus, please be mindful of these provisions and if a Board member attempts to provide you direction, please inform them of this letter and direct the inquiry to me.

If you have any questions or need any additional information, please let me know.  My cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Thank you.

Robert M. Avossa, Ed.D., Superintendent

School District of Palm Beach County

3300 Forest Hill Blvd., Suite C-316

West Palm Beach, FL   33406

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