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As Superintendent and School Board Now Urge Play’s Revival, Focus Shifts to Drama Teacher

| November 16, 2010

It's been a page-turner.

The Flagler County School Board on Tuesday evening accepted unanimously a recommendation from an appeals committee that the play version of To Kill a Mockingbird is appropriate material for high school students to perform—in class or on stage. Colleen Conklin, the school board member who triggered the appeal, said emphatically that “the play will go on.” And Janet Valentine, the superintendent whose ultimate decision it was to cancel the play on Oct. 21, was in full reversal mode.

“What I would really like to see happen? I would love for Flagler Palm Coast High School to be able to lay the groundwork and successfully produce that play,” Valentine said after the meeting. Who would direct it? “I don’t know that answer. That’s what that principal and faculty will decide.” Could Ed Koczergo, the original director of the play and the school’s drama teacher, be in charge? “I’m not saying that it couldn’t. There might be other supports put in place, there might be other folks that work on site. It could be a collaborative effort.”

During the meeting, Valentine took responsibility for not explaining more clearly and with less finality what the intentions had been when she agreed with an ad hoc committee to cancel a student production of To Kill a Mockingbird last month.“I’m going to take this time to take personal responsibility that I may not have conveyed to this board or to the public the correct context,” Valentine said, reading from a statement, “which may have led to the misconception that this district did not believe that our students and community were not ready for such a performance.”

The decision by Valentine and Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva, explained by both by emails to the school board and to the staff at FPC on Oct. 21, left no room for doubt that they had chosen to cancel the play with no intention of reviving it, and over fears that the use of the word nigger on stage might be misinterpreted. (Oliva was not at the school board meeting and did not respond to phone and email messages, earlier in the day, seeking comment.)

That absence of doubt is what led School Board member Colleen Conklin to appeal the decision in hopes of reviving the play. That was no longer the story by Tuesday evening, when even Conklin said that she had not been under the impression that the play had been cancelled for good. She filed her appeal, she said, because she wanted to ensure that it wouldn’t be revived too far down the road.

With scripts of the controversy being re-written before them, some people in the audience were not convinced.

Jim Guines, a former school board member who’s been critical of the decision to cancel the play, told board members of being invited by the drama teacher to talk about the play before or after it, should be it staged, as part of the “groundwork” the district wants in place once it’s performed.  “I’m ready. The kids are ready. The director is ready,” Guines told the board members. “I don’t think you’re all ready. I honestly don’t think you’re all ready to give educational leadership in these times. You did censor. I don’t know what you call censorship. You may have intend to delay or to do whatever. But you censored. And I’m disappointed in you. I’m disappointed in you. That’s why you make the $30,000. To make the hard decisions.”

John Hardison, another critic of the original decision to censor, said: “When it comes to this book and our history with that author in particular, these kids, the history, all of these things, we have an obligation to put this play on. We have an obligation to look at the realities of our past.” He added, “When we blur those lines we tend to blur the lines of our own progress. When we say well maybe it wasn’t as bad as it really was or cover up the n-word by saying the n-word, it gets really hard for our kids to see just how far we’ve come. That’s the reality of it. This play needs to go on.”

John Sbordone, the artistic director at the Flagler Playhouse, told the board that the Playhouse’s stage would welcome the student production of Mockingbird in April should it prove impossible or impractical to stage as it was initially intended (at the Flagler Auditorium). But board members were insistent that the play would go on as a student production on what would amount to its home stage.

john winston and Ed Koczergo

Who's the race-baiter now? John Winston, left, and Ed Koczergo
(© FlaglerLive)

Among the public, only one person took a contrarian view while rewriting history of his own—John Winston, who leads the district’s mentoring program for young blacks and was part of the committee that recommended cancellation in late October. In full bluster, Winston put the blame for the Mockingbird controversy the press, on adults in the community “seeking their 15 minutes of fame,” and on the drama teacher whom he accused of racism and separatism. During the committee meeting that led to the cancellation of the play, Winston said, Koczergo was asked to describe the potential impact of the play on the community. Koczergo’s answer: “White people will always hate black people and black people will always hate white people.” That statement, Winston said, “played a major role in the temporary decision to shut the play down until senior administrators had the chance to investigate it further.”

There was nothing temporary about the decision, which was to cancel the play after that meeting and not revisit the issue further. In Valentine’s email to the school board and Oliva’s email to his faculty, nothing was said about Koczergo statement—and Koczergo, in fact, was tasked with explaining the cancellation to his students, and coming up with a replacement play, which he staged last weekend. He continues to teach and rehearse.

And he doesn’t deny making the statement. Contacted Tuesday evening, Koczergo said: “That’s exactly what I said, but everyone knew in the context of what we were talking about that I did not mean all black people and all white people. Everyone knew that meant some black people and some white people. If someone were to assume that I felt all white people hate all black people and all black people hate white people, why in heaven’s name would I even choose to pick this play?”

Valentine, who was in the committee meeting involving Koczergo, was asked after the meeting about his statement. “I’m just not going to publicly comment on that,” the superintendent said. “I don’t feel comfortable with that. I’m not here to bash a teacher. I’m here to get through this situation and to allow the community to understand it as best they can.”

In a phone interview with Valentine and Oliva on Oct. 28, however, both were asked about the same statement. “I don’t know exactly if he said it exactly that way,” Valentine said, making nothing more of it.

During the public comment portion of the meeting on Tuesday, Conklin termed the accusations against Koczergo  “unfair” and asked that Sue Dickinson–the newly minted chairperson of the board–prevent his name from being attacked again. By then it was too late: Winston’s slanders were in the record.

Update: In a letter to the superintendent sent on Wednesday (Nov. 17), Sbordone, the Flagler Playhouse artistic director, reiterated his offer to stage the play at the Playhouse and wrote: “One of the unfortunate omissions of last night’s meeting was the lost opportunity to capitalize on lessons from this most important novel. This, as you know, is a story of a wonderful parent-child relationship. Scout idolizes her father and Atticus offers trenchant observations on the world they live in.

“It would have been wonderful for one of the School Board or its staff to neutralize the racial issues with homilies from the text. Education is too often about things other then education. We might have been able to teach an important lesson.

“On this issue of language Atticus says to his son Jem, “There’s a lot of ugly words in this world son, I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible.”
The novel is full of such gems. Perhaps if the issue remains current this perspective might be offered by the Board to demonstrate that the educational establishment is sensitive to the literature as well as the political issues.”

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10 Responses for “As Superintendent and School Board Now Urge Play’s Revival, Focus Shifts to Drama Teacher”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    I know that everyone is sick of this foolishness ; now that we are back where it all started can we please move forward and get this show on the road?

  2. Rob Reed says:

    I’m a former FPC student and thesbian for FPC drama department graduated 2010, and I’d like to say a personal thank you to everyone that helped to bring back this show.
    When I first heard the news I was appalled that the county that I had grown to love over the majority of my childhood could possibly think of being so closed minded as to cancle such a classic. After hearing more and more and details I understood why some hands where raised in “Student safety”, but over all my heart sank. Working with Ed Koczergo for the last 2 years of my high school career were some of the best years of my life, and it is a horrible crime to rip such experiences away from the hands of other students.
    For those still in the consideration of pulling Mr.Koczergo from directing this show, I emplore you to reconsider. There is NONE better for the job.

    – Rob

  3. Judy Vanderoef says:

    Seriously, this is beyond ridiculous. Mr. Sbordone’s offer is generous, but what a loss it would be if this play could not be performed at Flagler Auditorium. I simply don’t understand why there is any question as to who should direct it. Mr. Winston has a problem with Mr. Koczergo. Mr. Winston, you are an adult mentor – what would you say to a mentee in a similar situation? I hope you would suggest a conversation discussing the issue and coming to some kind of compromise. There seems to me to be a lesson in this misunderstanding between the two of you. Resolve it and share with students what you learned – teachable moments.

    As a member of the community, with no connection to the players involved, I don’t really need an explanation. It’s been deemed appropriate – let it go on.

  4. cyd weeks says:

    Omg, politics as usual. They should all be ashamed of themselves. And for someone to be placing ‘blame’ on the parents and community…that is TOTAL ABSURDITY. Shame on you!

  5. Jim Guines says:

    I did not get in this pissing contest to get pee on the leg of the teacher. While I have not met mr. K.., I cannot wait to do so. Just like most people now, they can’t wait to see the show as it has been well promoted!!! Curtain Time!!!!!

  6. W.Ryan says:

    Please let this play happen. Let it express what it needs to for the betterment of our community. Obviously
    Mr.Koczergo’s statement was generalizing to emphasize a point. Hate will always rear it’s ugly head in our Society. Don’t let another controversy delay and beat down the intent of the writer and the students in the production of this play. My son took Mr. Kocsergo’s class.They did a of scenes from “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. I loved the notion that this gripping story would make its way to my son’s psyche by way of FPC. He is well suited to produce this play. Let the show go on!!!

  7. Dr. Michael J. O'Connor says:

    My son, Nicholas, was actually chosen for a role in this play. His mother and I were very happy about it because this book (TKAM) is my favorite. I read it in 1969 when there was still much racial tension throughout the NY area where I am from. My own school was full of it ! The story- while using an ugly word- is all about doing the “Right Thing”.Atticus is a true hero and stands as an example for us all…not only in skin color issues, but in human acceptance and love in general.It is an account of a situation that was extremely sad…dis-eased even, yet led to a great change. Isn’t that known as “history”? I am married to a woman outside of my race. My two best friends are black. what a boring world it would be if we were all white!! As to Dr. Guines comments….you are the man, Jim! Still smokin’ after all these years!!

  8. Jim Guines says:

    Doc. I have been trying to get by ana see you like I used to do. I never felt better before you left Palm Coast. I am the guy a little older which makes me need you more. God less!!!

  9. Liana G says:

    “In full bluster, Winston put the blame for the Mockingbird controversy the press, on adults in the community “seeking their 15 minutes of fame,” and on the drama teacher whom he accused of racism and separatism.”

    Mr Winston: I take pride and find encouragement in reading about the courage of people like Mahatma Ghandi, Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, Dr King, Sojourner Truth , Aung San Suu Kyi, Federick Douglas, Benazir Bhutto, Noam Chomsky, Van Jones, William Kunstler among others. Are these bad role models for me to have?

  10. Patrick says:

    Thank God I moved from this place.

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