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How will Broward’s new superintendent deal with school closures, financial crisis?

Howard Hepburn, former deputy superintendent for teaching and learning for Broward County Public Schools, unexpectedly became the new superintendent of the school district on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, after former Superintendent Peter Licata announced his plans to step down.

Broward County Public Schools got a new superintendent Tuesday after Peter Licata unexpectedly announced his resignation due to health concerns, and now his successor has inherited all the many issues faced by the sixth largest school district in the country.

What are these challenges exactly and how will Howard Hepburn, the new head administrator, tackle them?

His first few hours on the dais may have shed some light on that.

READ MORE: After 10 months, Broward Schools superintendent to retire. Board replaces him immediately

Fixing the ‘slow and complicated’ plans to close schools

The main problem in the Broward school district — and for Hepburn — remains the loss of millions of dollars because of shrinking student enrollment.

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On Tuesday, the district’s chief financial officer, Judith Marte, said the loss of 4300 students over the next school year has translated to a loss of $39 million in state funding.

The Tuesday meeting was the day that Licata was supposed to have brought details about what could be done to downsize the district. At a meeting last month, he promised board members to provide a more concrete proposal, but instead he provided his resignation. Hepburn had already been working closely with Licata and Alan Strauss, the school district’s task-assigned chief strategy and innovation officer, on school closures. So the frustration board members felt after seeing how far the district was from having anything resembling a plan was aimed at Howard.

READ MORE: After chaotic meeting, Broward schools still no closer to plan on school closings

In the meeting, as district staffers said they plan to keep searching for specific plans to close or repurpose specific schools, the board pushed Hepburn to be more transparent and efficient. A board member called the process so far “too complicated” and “too slow.”

Hepburn said he will work to add more transparency and strengthen community input, and will bring details during the next board meeting on the topic.

“That May 14 workshop will include a lot of quantitative data that helps to defend the decision-making about why certain options were chosen, why certain school closures should be expected and also outlining next steps thereafter,” he said.

Broward charter schools’ debt settled

On March 27, the State Board of Education determined that the Broward County School Board was currently breaking state law and owes about $80 million to local charter schools.

The state board accused the local school board of not complying with a statute that requires the school district to proportionately share funds it collects from a discretionary tax with charter schools, which are schools financed by taxpayers but managed by private entities.

The funds at hand came from a 2018 voter-approved referendum. The charter schools sued the school district over it last fall.

The state asked the district in late March to show how it will start complying with the revenue-sharing requirements by April 17.

FROM MARCH: Florida education officials say Broward Public Schools owe about $80M to charters

On Tuesday, the Broward School Board met in a closed-door session with the charter schools’ attorneys to negotiate a settlement for the debt. After the session, the School Board approved a payment plan spanning from 2024 to 2026.

The School Board will pay one third of the debt plus interest on July 10, 2024, then one half of the remaining balance plus interest on July 10, 2025, and the full balance remaining with interest on July 10, 2026. All charter schools in the county will benefit.

Board member Allen Zeman was the only board member who dissented, but didn’t say why. Board Member Torey Alston abstained from voting “out of an abundance of caution.”

On Wednesday, Hepburn will likely travel to Tallahassee to share the news with the top education officials in the state.

Dealing with a budget worth losing sleep over

The dwindling revenue from the drop in enrollment, the charter schools’ settlement and a decision to approve teacher raises in late February have all taken hits on the school district’s nearly $6 billion budget.

On Feb. 27, the Broward School Board agreed to use nearly $20 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds to increase teachers’ pay But because it’s a recurring expense and the district won’t get more federal dollars, the district needs to cut elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the board touched on the topic, and Marte said the board will have to make “difficult decisions” to keep their financials in check.

“I’m probably losing more sleep balancing this budget than I have since 2008, when we had the Great Recession,” she said. In 2008, Marte worked as the CFO for Miami Dade County Public Schools. She stayed in MDCPS for nearly 15 years and has served the Broward school district for a combined total of six years since.

RELATED: Five things to know about Broward County Public Schools’ new superintendent

“I’m not sleeping well,” she said, “and I dare say most of my staff isn’t either.”

Still, Marte said Hepburn has participated in the process even though he headed academics, so he could transition into that overseeing role easier than others.

“Dr. Hepburn has been intimately involved with working through the budget with me in a partnership level that academics historically in my experience hasn’t been involved. He’s been a tremendous thought partner. And he’s helped craft some of what we present as difficult decisions, but decisions that have to be made.”

Bible controversy leads to process review?

During Tuesday’s unpredictable meeting, Hepburn also dealt with the contentious issue of book challenges in schools.

Currently, the Broward school district allows any Broward resident to object to material used in public schools.

The process starts with them filling out a form detailing the objection. Then the director of the district’s Innovative Learning Department convenes a Superintendent’s Review Committee to review the objection. The committee uses a rubric to decide whether the material breaks any policies or laws, and then submits a recommendation to the superintendent. The superintendent then decides to follow through with the recommendation or not, and passes it on to the School Board.

Because the district received an objection to the Bible last year, an SRC met in December to discuss the objection and decided to leave the book in schools. Licata ask the board to approve that, and the board did. But the topic attracted a lot of public speakers who complained about other material and the process itself.

FROM 2023: See list of banned, restricted books in Dade, Broward schools

Toward the end of the discussion, Board Member Brenda Fam asked Hepburn to share his opinion on it.

“I won’t specifically provide an opinion, but I will confer that we have a specific process; our team follows through with that process,” Hepburn said. “When that information comes to me, I look at it with a fine-tooth comb, and support or do something different based on the recommendation.”

“Would you agree with me that that process has failed?” Fam volleyed back.

“Let me say this, we’ll review the process,” he said. “I’ve heard the feedback from the people in the audience on both sides of the issue. We’ll use a fine-tooth comb and review the process and make sure it’s working for everybody.”