Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca, will not run for a fifth term in 2024.
For nearly half the time he has been on the board, Barbieri has been chairman, including the last three years. That means Barbieri has been the most prominent board member during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that same recent period, he has dealt with the worldwide controversy over Holocaust-denying remarks by a former principal at Spanish River High School—in Barbieri’s district—and the elevation of Mike Burke from chief financial officer to superintendent.
The strain has shown. During some phone conversations, his voice sounded like that of a man much older than someone who turns 72 in a week.
It would have been hard enough being chairman as the school district shifted to remote learning over the spring break in 2020, then shifted to in-person and remote learning last year, then faced decisions on COVID-19 protocols such as masks when the Delta and Omicron variants emerged last year.
But the pandemic brought an unprecedented level of politics to what had been non-partisan jobs. Indeed, school board races remain non-partisan, although the Legislature is trying to change that.
Rather than explain his decision in an interview, Barbieri sent me a long statement after asking for time to “gather my thoughts.” I will quote from it.
Barbieri ran for the board 14 years ago “based on a passion—a duty to serve as a strong voice and advocate for children, parents, and school staff. I still have that passion, I’m still that voice, and I’m very proud of my accomplishments.
“There is no more rewarding feeling than seeing thousands of young men and women walk across the graduation stage and having the opportunity to shake their hands wishing them a bright future, hoping I played a small part in their success.
He called the job “personal for me. My three grandchildren all attend our schools. Years ago, my eldest grandchild asked me to stay until he graduated high school. Any grandparent knows you can’t say no to your chandchild! As there are two years remaining in my term, I will fulfill that promise.”
In deciding not to run, Barbieri naturally cited family. “There is still so much my wife and I want to enjoy together—travel, more time with our children and grandchildren.” But, he added, “a little less stress would be beneficial.
“School board meetings have become progressively contentious. While I respect varying viewpoints as a vital component of discussions, I’m disheartened by the callous disregard for dignity and civility” at board meetings,” which he called “a microcosm” of the country. “Rude and vicious behavior has somehow become acceptable as an exercise of one’s ‘freedom of speech’—a freedom which should be cherished, not abused.”
The intimidation doesn’t stop when the meeting ends. Like others on the board, Barbieri has “been threatened, and my receipt of the most vile emails and phone calls imaginable are now commonplace.”
I can vouch for that. Barbieri has forwarded some of his emails and voicemails. Many are profane rants. Some of the mildest ones call him a fascist and a Nazi. Many of them stem from the board’s decision to require masks. Still others arise from discussions about teaching race.
Barbieri pledges “100 percent of my effort” for the next two years. He expressed his gratitude to voters. Through the 2016 sales-tax surcharge, Barbieri secured money to build the new Addison Mizner and Verde K-8 schools and to add high school space in the district. After the city donated 15 acres, Barbieri got Boca Raton the county’s first elementary school—named Blue Lake—in decades.
After the last two years, no one can blame Barbieri for wanting to retire. One hopes, though, that his decision doesn’t give the haters any sense that they’ve won.
“For the sake of our children,” Barbieri said, “I hope that somewhere along the way respect, civility, and kindness are restored. Parents are their child’s first and most influential teacher. They must teach by example.”
He added a final thought: “Despite our differences and political beliefs, we are all Americans and need to stand together in a very dangerous world.”
Delray Beach moving to streamline building process
Delray Beach is beginning “to move us into this century,” said Development Services Director Anthea Gianniotes.
She means that the city is about to start taking building applications electronically, something that Boca Raton has done for roughly a decade. As that happens, Gianniotes wants the city commission to consider whether other parts of the development approval process are similarly outdated.
“If there is an appetite to make changes,” Gianniotes said at the Feb. 8 workshop meeting, “that discussion needs to start here.” There appears to be an appetite.
Commissioner Ryan Boylston said, “I’m in favor of this entire process.” Adam Frankel called Gianniotes’ remarks “a good and overdue presentation.” Commissioners have discussed this topic informally for the last few years and recounted complaints from property owners. But this is the first formal review.
Four advisory panels have a role in approvals: the planning and zoning board, the site plan review and appearance board, the historic preservation board and the board of adjustment. Gianniotes wondered whether “a more holistic review” might be simpler without losing oversight.
Boca Raton’s process is a bit more straightforward. Projects go to the community appearance board and then to the planning and zoning board before reaching the city council. Previously, elected officials in Delray Beach suggested combining the site plan board and the planning and zoning board.
“Our board members are rock stars,” Gianniotes said. They serve without pay. Meetings can run long. But she also noted that it can be hard to fill the positions. Those two boards especially require certain professional backgrounds, not just a willingness to perform a civic function.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia pointed out that no one on the current commission has served on one of those four boards. That’s a break from when board service was considered almost mandatory for aspiring commissioners.
Petrolia asked about combining the board of adjustment and the site plan review board. She asked Gianniotes to get comment from current board members.
This debate isn’t just theoretical. Cumbersome, needlessly costly approvals can discourage private investment. Gianniotes said she would “regroup and get to work.”
FAU football dropping two games for 2022, joining new conference
Florida Atlantic University may have two holes on its football schedule this fall.
The Owls will leave Conference USA after the 2022 season to join the higher-ranked and more financially lucrative American Athletic Conference. Two of those final Conference USA games are against Old Dominion on Oct. 29 and Marshall on Nov. 12. Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Mississippi had planned to leave Conference USA next season for the Sun Belt Conference, to which FAU once belonged.
Two weeks ago, however, those three schools said they intend to leave a year early. Next week, the Sun Belt Conference is set to announce a 2022 season that includes them, which would leave FAU two opponents short of a 12-game schedule.
Based on news reports, the teams did not give the required 14-month notice to switch conferences. If they move ahead, Conference USA likely will sue. Welcome to the constantly realigning world of college football.