Community and Philanthropic Leaders Celebrate Education in Palm Beach County

March 16 – Palm Beach Gardens, FL – Yesterday, hundreds of community and philanthropic leaders convened to honor Palm Beach County education and share the importance of investing in today’s students as tomorrow’s leaders. The 2023 Distinguished Alumni Awards, co-hosted by the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County, Business Development Board of Palm Beach County (BDB) and School District of Palm Beach County, is a partnership to acknowledge those who have shaped the future and are inspiring students today.

The “2023 Distinguished Alumni Awardee” was Gary S. Lesser, Managing Partner of Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith, a third-generation personal injury law firm with 95 years of dedication. Gary is also President of The Florida Bar. As a Palm Beach County graduate and a West Palm Beach native, his significant contributions in professional practice, personal achievement and community service earned him this honor.

The “2023 Outstanding Business Partner Awardee” was Verdenia C. Baker, Administrator of Palm Beach County. She oversees the third largest County in the State of Florida, totaling 6,800 employees and a $6 billion budget. She leads a population of 1.5 million people and her ability to go “above and beyond” as a leader in the community earned her this honor.

The keynote speaker was Dwayne Dennard, Principal of Pahokee Middle-Senior High School, who recently won the School District of Palm Beach County’s “2023 Principal of the Year” award. Under his stewardship, the robotics program has earned numerous awards, from being acknowledged by then-Senator Nelson for reaching the state finals in its debut year, to garnering the approval of NASA scientists worldwide for space exploration.  The number of IB diplomas rose from a mere 0 in prior years to 43 presently, while the passing of AICE exams climbed from none to 120 in the same span of time. This year, the Class of 2022 etched its name in the record books with a 100% graduation rate.

“The strong partnership between the business community and our public school system is what separates Palm Beach County from every other area of the country.  No one understands the importance of a strong public school system as well as Kelly Smallridge and the team at the BDB,” said James Gavrilos, President & CEO of the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County.  “This year’s honorees, Gary Lesser and Verdenia Baker, exemplify what is best in our community.  A product of the public school system (and the pride of Forest Hill High School), Gary Lesser has not only built a successful law practice, but as President of the Florida Bar Association, is making a difference throughout the state!  Simply put, County Administrator Verdenia Baker has nudged our educational system forward with gentle but relentless prodding.  Whether spearheading the project to bring the internet and digital inclusion to thousands of Palm Beach County students, or planting seeds for an inclusive Fire Science Academy, Ms. Baker is a public servant, a business leader and a tireless advocate for a school district that seeks to educate, affirm and inspire every student in an equity-based environment.”

“This annual event showcases our home-grown talent right here in Palm Beach County. The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County appreciates the partnership with the Education Foundation and School District of Palm Beach County to recognize outstanding leaders who are a product of our school district and those who have supported the efforts of public education,” stated Kelly Smallridge, President and CEO of the Business Development Board. “Congratulations to County Administrator Verdenia Baker and Gary S. Lesser for your outstanding leadership, as well as Dwayne Dennard who is impacting so many lives with his guidance as this year’s top Principal.”

The event was held at the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott. Sponsors included Office Depot, UnitedHealthcare, PNC, Keiser University, Florida Power & Light, Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith PLLC, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Gunster, BDO, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Song + Associates, Inc., Nova Southeastern University, HBK CPAs & Consultants and Publix Super Markets Charities.


About Education Foundation of Palm Beach County:

The Education Foundation of Palm Beach County is the nexus of Palm Beach County’s public school system, the private sector, and the community.  The Foundation facilitates student achievement by supporting high-quality public education through partnerships, grants, events, and public awareness. Visit online at to learn how you can get involved. Join us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

About Business Development Board:

The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County is the official public/private economic development organization for Palm Beach County and Enterprise Florida.  Founded in 1982 as a not-for-profit corporation, our primary purpose is to attract and retain new industry, business investment, high quality jobs and workforce development through corporate relocations, expansions and international trade. During the past five years, the BDB has assisted more than 140 companies that have created or retained more than 13,110 direct jobs with average salaries greater than $80,000, resulting in more than $1.12 billion in capital investment to Palm Beach County. The BDB’s highest level investor partners include Focus Financial Partners, Carrier, Florida Power & Light, LRP Media Group, HSS, Moss Construction, Stiles Nicholson Foundation, Suffolk Construction, Tampa General Hospital, Tortoise Properties, TPA Group and Wexford Real Estate Investors (WREI). Additional information can be found at the BDB’s website,



Education Foundation Media Contact:

Angel Adams –

Business Development Board Media Contact:

Kristen Liberman –