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Emotional debate over interim superintendent ends with unanimous vote to appoint Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard speaks at the Escambia County School District special meeting on Monday.
Screenshot by WUWF
Escambia County School District
Keith Leonard speaks at the Escambia County School District special meeting on Monday.

The Escambia County School Board voted Tuesday to formally offer the position of interim superintendent to long-time district administrator Keith Leonard for a term of 13 months. He currently serves as assistant superintendent for human resource services.

Ultimately, Leonard was the unanimous choice to replace Dr. Tim Smith who was fired earlier this month, but not before a vigorous debate about the fact that he was selected over the district’s second in command.

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“You can’t promote a major and skip over a colonel because a vacancy is open. Things must be done properly and in order,” said speaker Darryl Riley in support of consideration for Deputy Superintendent Dr. Shenna Payne.

Isaac Williams, pastor of Pensacola’s Greater True Vine Baptist Church, also spoke on behalf of adding Payne to the conversation, while making it clear that his issue is with the process and has nothing to do with Leonard.

“I don’t know Keith. I never met him. From everything I hear, he’s a fine young man. I’m not against him,” said Williams. “But, I strongly believe some consideration should have been given to the deputy.”

Williams also asked board members to think about her qualifications and pointed to the fact that having a person of color like Payne in the position would mean a lot to some in the community.

A few speakers were still uneasy over how Smith’s firing was handled and expressed concern about politics in education and what they described as the "attack on the public school system," including books.

It was frustration over the district’s long arduous process of vetting and banning individual books — deemed sexually explicit or inappropriate for young readers — that prompted the initial calls to fire Superintendent Smith after he refused to use his unilateral authority to ban the entire list of challenged books.

RELATED: Escambia School Board votes to fire embattled Superintendent Tim Smith

Teacher Vickie Baggett challenged many of the books in the district.

“I promise you, Mr. Leonard knows how to look at passages or pictures in library books or online e-books, have out state and federal laws right beside him, consult our legal counsel, if necessary, and then make a decision that certain books are pornographic or a violation of parental rights saving all of you a lot of time and money,” said Baggett, who also pointed out that Leonard actually applied for the job, while Payne, who was hired by Smith, did not.

“I’ve known him most of his life and know him to be a leader and a man of high honor,” said long-time friend and educator Jim Taylor.

“I ask that we forget the recent unpleasantness and unite behind Mr. Leonard to lead our district, our team of students, parents, employees, board members to great successes, where failure is not an option.”

But, the back and forth over appointment of an interim superintendent came to an abrupt end, when Deputy Superintendent Payne was given a chance to speak on her own behalf.

Deputy superintendent Sheena Payne at Monday’s special board meeting.
Screenshot by WUWF
Escambia County School District
Deputy superintendent Sheena Payne at Monday’s special board meeting.

“I think Mr. Leonard got pulled in — I got pulled in, and now we have to find a way to pull together,” Payne stated. “We don’t have to be ugly. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Like Leonard, who came through the school system and has worked for the district for more than three decades, Payne has roots in the community. She attended school locally and working in the district for multiple decades. She has worked for the district for 25 years, as a teacher and high school principal, where she was working before being chosen to serve as deputy superintendent.

Payne removed most of the tension in the room, by agreeing to step aside.

“Mr. Leonard, let me say to you sir, I heard someone say earlier in this meeting that evening that you agreed and that you would serve. So, sir, serve on,” she said agreeing to serve under his leadership.

After Payne expressed her willingness to serve under Leonard, the board voted 5-0 to appoint Leonard as interim superintendent for a term of 13 months.

“It’s a hard way to accept this opportunity,” said Leonard after the vote. But, moving forward, he emphasized that his focus is on the 45,000 students and staff in the district.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have a very diverse community and all of their points are very important and need to be listened to. And, the bottom line is making it so our students have the very best opportunity for success in life.”

Leonard's term as interim superintendent begins Thursday, June 1 and ends June 30, 2024.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.