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“Polarizing.” “Shovel-ready.” “No strengths.” “This is the person we need.”
What do those words and phrases have in common? All were descriptions used for the man selected to be Brevard Public Schools‘ next superintendent, illustrating the environment Mark Rendell will face from Day 1. As the only one of the three finalists who has worked in Brevard, Rendell was known to many — and that means he comes into the top job with strong support as well as adamant detractors.
School board members, who selected Rendell in a 3-2 vote May 2, pointed out that they received more feedback about him than any of the other finalists, not all of it positive, though based on a 21-page community survey reviewed by FLORIDA TODAY, those surveyed provided almost the exact same number of comments for each candidate. This, however, doesn’t take into account emails sent to board members, phone calls or conversations held outside the survey.
“I look forward to working with all the members of the school board and the district staff to support the work in the classroom. This will be a team effort, and I believe that if we all work together, we can achieve excellence,” Rendell said shortly after being selected.
While some might think a new superintendent would come in with a clean slate and a honeymoon period, it’s not clear if Rendell will get that.
Rendell selected: What comes next?Rendell named Brevard Public Schools superintendent: Here’s what we know
At least one expert said that’s not surprising in the current polarized education environment — but it doesn’t have to be a hindrance. Rendell, whose start date is June 1, declined a request for an interview, saying he’d prefer to wait until after the school board formalizes his appointment Tuesday.
“Anyone that applies to be a superintendent has the intellect and hopefully the skill set to recognize that he or she … can’t merely relate with a small subsection of stakeholders, and that all stakeholders need to be involved,” said Andrea Messina, CEO of the Florida School Board Association.
“And so I believe that any superintendent, anyone that gets the job of superintendent, understands that all stakeholders should have an opportunity for input, should be listened to and should be able to be a part of creating the solutions for the school district, creating a strategic plan, creating district goals.”
Rendell, currently principal at Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High, comes in with strong backing from three school board members: Chairman Matt Susin, board member Megan Wright and particularly, board member Gene Trent, who worked under him at Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High. All three are Republicans who have pushed the board further toward the right.
But Rendell wasn’t the top choice of Katye Campbell, a Republican, or Jennifer Jenkins, the lone Democrat on the nonpartisan board. Jenkins joined others in the community in suggesting the entire search process was “shameful” and that Rendell was the choice from the start.
A divided community and board
“This is the person we need,” Trent said at the May 2 meeting. “We’re excited as a community — that’s overwhelmingly what I’m getting.”
That wasn’t how Jenkins saw it. She expressed concern that selecting Rendell would further divide the community.
“Members of this board owe the constituents of Brevard County an apology for spending time and money on a process that clearly lacked integrity, and I quite frankly think you owe the candidates an apology as well,” Jenkins said.
Wright disputed the suggestion that Rendell had been selected ahead of time.
“It wasn’t decided (ahead of time),” Wright said. “I think the fact that we went to a national search and still come back to that candidate, for me being the strongest candidate that we saw, to me it says, ‘Hey, we searched high and low, we searched the county, and I feel confident now in saying, hey, this is who I want to move forward with.’”
More:Discipline in Brevard schools: What did audit reveal?
Who were the superintendent finalists?Brevard School Board to choose Tuesday from 3 superintendent finalists — some with baggage
Both Jenkins and Campbell said they felt finalist Scott Schneider, chief of schools for Duval County, was more qualified for the position.
Results obtained from an anonymous community survey reveal Brevard residents were sharply divided on the board’s choice, with many citing concerns about Rendell’s support from Trent and Moms for Liberty, a conservative parents group.
“I am not sure why you are asking the public their opinion because it is pretty clear you have already cherry picked the ‘winner,'” one respondent said.
“That being said, I have some concerns as a teacher about Dr. Rendell’s theory that we should stick to teaching the ‘curriculum.’ No we should not teach the curriculum, we should teach the Standards/Benchmarks. Don’t tie the hands of creative teachers by limiting what materials they use. Then there are the concerns based on his failures in Indian River County. How can one just overlook them and not seriously question what might happen with him at the helm of BPS? He is just too polarizing for our county.”
During the selection process for both semifinalists and finalists, Trent, among all the board members, seemed to zero in faster on a smaller group and then on Rendell.
Wright noted that she’d rejected Rendell when he sought to be interim superintendent after former Superintendent Mark Mullins’ ouster but was impressed when Rendell sought her out to inquire what he could have done better. She said when he came back as a candidate for the permanent role, he demonstrated he’d listened.
Rendell made both Susin’s and Campbell’s shortlists for finalist candidates, but never appeared on Jenkins’ list of favorites.
Division vs. moving ahead
Prior to his position at Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High School, Rendell served as superintendent in Indian River County from 2015 to 2019. There, his biggest supporter on the school board was Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty.
More:Judge rules against Moms for Liberty in Brevard school board public speaking policy lawsuit
Though Brevard’s chapter of Moms for Liberty had not specifically encouraged support for Rendell in their newsletters, they did lead an effort to have Hernando County Superintendent John Stratton removed as a finalist due to a controversy with a teacher who allegedly made threats against students. In their emails, they additionally said Stratton would not be a good fit for Brevard because he was the only finalist who was registered as a Democrat.
Stratton withdrew from the pool of finalists April 25.
Current and former members of Moms for Liberty and its offshoot organizations were strong supporters of Trent when he ran for school board in 2023, with the Brevard chapter endorsing him. At the meeting where Rendell was named superintendent, Trent sat at the dais with a Moms for Liberty thermal cup in front of him.
Katie Delaney, a former Moms for Liberty member, attended that meeting to ask them to select Rendell. She brought up his focus on teacher retention and the culture at his school as positives, saying that providing that for the whole district will “explode (the district’s) teacher retention.”
“If I didn’t live an hour away from that school, that’s where my kids would be going to school,” she said. “And that’s because of Dr. Rendell.”
With support from individual members of Moms for Liberty and Trent, survey respondents raised concerns about how Rendell would serve in this role, whether he’d represent the entire community or just one segment.
“Dr. Rendell has no strengths,” one respondent wrote. “The only question I have is ‘why does Gene Trent want you to have the job so badly?'”
Remarks on other candidates were split between thoughtful feedback and comments saying either of the two would be preferred over a candidate backed by Trent or Moms for Liberty.
Campbell summed up feelings toward Rendell by likening him to the herb cilantro: “Some people really love it and some people absolutely don’t,” she said.
But, ultimately, Campbell joined three of her colleagues in approving Rendell in a second, ceremonial vote intended to win him the board’s full support, saying she was committed to moving forward as a team but would be holding him accountable.
Finch Walker is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Walker at 321-290-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @_finchwalker.