Board selects new school chief

Harry La Cava impressed board members with his experience, his expertise and his focus on what's best for students.

Published March 16, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - In the end, it was easy.

After months of tough discussions, the Hernando County School Board agreed Thursday to negotiate a superintendent contract with Broward County administrator Harry J. La Cava.

The 55-year-old area superintendent was the first choice of three board members, and the second choice of the other two.

"I don't think that there's one thing that he did not discuss today that he was not very thorough about," said Chairman Pat Fagan. "He was very precise in every answer he gave to board members. I was very impressed with him."

The quick consensus - which the board arrived at within half-an-hour after a day-long marathon of interviewing five finalists - capped a rocky search process in which questions were raised about both the rigor and pace of the search to find a replacement for retiring Superintendent Wendy Tellone.

Every board member had good things to say about La Cava, who has worked in the 260,000-student Broward district since 1979. He became an administrator overseeing exceptional student education by the mid 1980s, and has overseen more than 80 schools as an area-superintendent since 2004.

Board members said that experience showed.

"Many times he said what I was thinking," said Dianne Bonfield, a former teacher. "I think he has a very good concept of what it takes to be an administrator in Florida. I liked his focus on students."

Running a close second among board members was Connecticut administrator Wayne Alexander, whom both Jim Malcolm and John Sweeney selected as their top choice.

"What I was impressed by was how much research he did on our district," said Malcolm, who called Alexander personable and well-versed. "I think his knowledge base ranked up there."

The board agreed to put Alexander - whom only Bonfield failed to rank in first or second place - as a backup choice to La Cava.

"I think he's an extremely quick study, and a uniter, not a divider," Sweeney said of Alexander. "I liked them both a lot."

Malcolm said he'd been put off a little by La Cava's quick answers, and wondered whether an educator with such experience and authority might be hard for the board to work with.

"I think it would be easier working with Dr. Alexander," Malcolm said. "But it's close."

Brevard County area-superintendent David Piccolo was a third-place choice for several board members, and Bonfield picked New Jersey superintendent Ray Kwak as her second pick.

Duval County principal Lorenda Tiscornia - whom several board members had criticized for overstating school enrollments from previous districts on her resume - impressed several with her enthusiasm and knowledge, but failed to do well in their rankings.

Board member Sandra Nicholson said La Cava, who was her first choice, stood head and shoulders above the rest.

"Everyone I talked to was impressed by Dr. LaCava," she said, praising his knowledge and affable demeanor.

In his interview, La Cava said he had long aspired to run a school district, and he and his wife were excited about moving to Hernando.

He described himself as hard-charging, and a fair but demanding boss who puts children first.

"I'm very direct, I don't hold anything back," La Cava added, describing his preference for "rich debate" over education issues.

With their top choice settled, the board began discussing contract issues, including questions about relocation allowance and mileage reimbursement. The board previously advertised a salary range of $95,000 to $125,000 for the position.

Malcolm urged a hard line.

But Fagan said it made sense to find out what La Cava wants.

"If you start cutting things before you even talk to him, I think we're making a mistake," he said. "We don't even know what he's making now."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.