The Sarasota County School Board is poised to appoint a superintendent July 14.
The five finalists are all administrators in Florida school districts: Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade County and St. Johns County.
Whoever is chosen will immediately begin learning about the district and work with administrators to formulate back-to-school plans amid COVID-19 and an executive order from the state declaring schools must open five days per week for students.
School board members began searching for a new superintendent shortly after former schools chief Todd Bowden was fired in November 2019.
Since then, the board launched a nationwide search. After surveying the public to see what criteria residents preferred, 31 candidates applied.
A Citizens Advisory Committee narrowed the pool first to 11 and then to five.
The board brought the final five to Sarasota for interviews June 30 through July 2.
During the interview process, each candidate was interviewed by the board one-on-one and as a panel. They also participated in a community Q&A, where residents could send in questions. Both interviews were livestreamed to the public.
Here’s a look at the finalists and what they had to say during interviews:
Asplen is deputy superintendent in charge of academic and student services in the St. Johns County School District.
He was president of the Florida Association of School Administrators and served as a principal at both the middle and high school levels. Asplen was a finalist for Sarasota County superintendent in 2016.
Beverly Slough, the St. Johns school board chair, said that she has worked with Asplen as a principal and an administrator, and she’s confident he has the “compassion and collaborative spirit” it takes to be a successful superintendent.
“He’s proven himself, and I think he shows a lot of wisdom,” Slough said. “He shows the ability to make sound decisions when necessary, hard decisions for the betterment of our district. And I’m positive he could do that in any other district in which he served.”
During the interview process, Asplen said he would be a collaborative leader.
“I am a uniter; I am a person that likes talking to people and working through concerns,” Asplen said. “There are a lot of problems out there, and there are big problems, but there is nothing that we can’t overcome by working together.”
In his first days as superintendent, Asplen said he would work to build a relationship with the school board and community stakeholders, such as parents, students and administrators.
“The very first thing that I would do is get out there and be visible and meet people in the community,” he said. “If that takes every night for the first six months, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Licata is a regional superintendent in Palm Beach County Schools. He is credited with increasing the number of career technical programs in the district and is developing the district’s COVID-19 response plan.
He also has been involved in the Chiefs for Change program.
“When checking references, I got rave comments about Peter,” CAC member Kelly Caldwell said. “Everyone was positive about him and said he’s ready to take over and become that next superintendent. They said he has the training and knowledge to take that leap.”
Licata said that with many schools facing an uncertain future, it is important to have a superintendent who can think creatively and take other’s opinions into account.
“Catastrophic decisions are made in isolation, and that is not a way to lead,” he said. “I see this vibrant, culturally strong, very supportive community needing a leader that hears them and continues the greatness in this area.”
In his first year, Licata said he would prioritize three points: giving extra support to struggling schools, adding middle school acceleration coursework to get students working on higher level courses at a younger age and training staff to replace key personnel in line for retirement.
“I’m a strong believer of finding the best in our own, training them, coaching them,” Licata said. “If we can do that, there are some great people here. Let’s find them and get them set and ready to go.”
Should he be named the next superintendent, Licata said he plans to stay in the district for many years.
“This is not just a stepping stone for me. I’m not waiting to move somewhere else. Sarasota is the place I want to retire to,” he said. “This would be my capstone.”
Oswald is deputy chief academic officer in Palm Beach County. He has spent his entire career at Palm Beach County, except for two years with the New York City Board of Education, where he supervised schools in the Bronx.
Oswald is credited with creating and implementing a plan that resulted in an A rating for the district, and he helped implement the district’s online learning platform in response to COVID-19.
Oswald said a key focus for him would be building a positive environment.
“I love focusing on school culture,” he said. “The research is clear. If you get a good culture, you’re going to have better student achievement.”
Building that culture to be successful, he said, falls into three main categories: academics, behavior and climate.
In his first year, Oswald said he would like to start rebuilding the trust in the superintendent, with both the board and community stakeholders.
“Trust is the basis for any effective relationship, and that takes action, and that takes time,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re very transparent and honest, and we build some ground rules for how we’re going to do that.”
His main priority for the district would be strategizing how the district will help students get back on track academically, socially and emotionally after COVID-19.
“We’re all experiencing trauma going through this new normal way of life, so we need to analyze what mental behavioral health supports, what opportunities for kids to talk about the experiences they went through we have, so they’re in a safe space to start learning again,” Oswald said.
Gonzalo La Cava
La Cava has served as chief of human resources in Palm Beach County for the past four years. Before that, he was the area superintendent for Fulton County Schools in Atlanta.
La Cava has a wide variety of upper management experience, including assistant superintendent and principal. He also is a member of Chiefs for Change.
“He’s been in a leadership role in all three levels of education, elementary, middle and high, and that in itself is unusual,” CAC member Scott Lempe said. “But he also has experience at the organizational level, and I just think he’s done all the right things to prepare himself for this role.”
La Cava said he is a leader who likes to share who he is with coworkers and set reasonable expectations for staff members.
“I’m the type of leader who likes to set expectations and ensure that people understand who I am,” he said. “When you work for people, and they walk in, and they don’t share with you their leadership style, who they are, what they’re expecting, you’re kind of in a vacuum, and that is not conducive to success.”
Gonzalo, whose parents immigrated to the U.S., said he was very proud of his equity work and would like to address it in Sarasota County in his first year.
“We need to look at equity. We need to ask, ‘Are we pouring resources into those schools that need the help, that are behind?’” he said. “As we start to do those things, we’ll see the achievement gap start to close, more kids of color graduating and more brown and Black students succeeding.”
Izquierdo is chief academic officer in Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest district in the nation.
She has served as the assistant superintendent of academics, accountability and school improvement, and as the deputy chief of staff for Miami-Dade.
Izquierdo helped pass a $1.2 billion bond issue, and she has a recommendation from the Teacher’s Association.
Izquierdo also has been involved in Chiefs for Change, and she was the only candidate to receive a vote from all 25 CAC members.
Should she be selected, Izquierdo wants to focus on making sure the district is successful for all students.
“You are a fantastic school district, you have amazing outcomes, and I feel there are more opportunities to do even greater things,” Izquierdo said. “We can be an A not only as a school district but an A for all students, whether they’re English-language learners, Black students, students who are homeless or in foster care. And I feel I can help you achieve that.”
She said she would come to the district with one singular goal: student achievement.
“Everything will emanate and evolve around that singular goal of student achievement,” Izquierdo said. “There’s a lot of peripheral goals, but my singular goal as superintendent would be to raise the bar as it pertains to student achievement.”
She also would like to address equity in the district with a three-pronged approach: diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I do believe in equitable funding, not necessarily equal funding, when you have students who come to the schoolhouse door with huge gaps, and they’re not all coming with the same need,” Izquierdo said. “We need to make sure our teacher core is reflective of our student demographic, that kids see themselves in our teachers, that they see themselves in their school leaders and their principals.”
She hopes to build trust by being a role model of accessibility and responsiveness in the community.
“I don’t have all the answers. I’m not coming to you with a set of preconceived solutions, but I can assure you that I will be steadfast in my commitment to Sarasota County, and I will be relentless in my work ethic, and I will listen to you, our stakeholders,” Izquierdo said. “I will learn, and I will lead.”