In Day’s 1st Interview, Superintendent Candidate Pam Tapley of Osceola Projects Bubbly Personality, Passion and Generalities
FlaglerLive | January 30, 2014
Note: the account of Jacob Oliva’s job interview, which took place after Pam Tapley’s, is available here.
This was it. Interview day for the Flagler County School Board and its two, lone remaining candidates for superintendent: Pamela Tampley, an assistant superintendent at Osceola County schools, and Jacob Oliva, Flagler’s acting superintendent, assistant superintendent since mid-2012 and the strong front-runner for the job.
The interviews were scheduled for 9 and 11 a.m. Thursday, with the candidate facing the board and flanked by a small audience, in the third-floor training room of the Government Services Building in Bunnell.
Tapley, who went first at 9 a.m., proved immediately personable, well-spoken, occasionally funny and comfortable with herself and the board. Tapley had two jobs Thursday: to interview well, but also to make the case, like the challenger in a political race, to unseat a popular incumbent. She had to do so by drawing clear and convincing contrasts with Oliva, who has the benefit of knowing the Flagler district from the inside out.
But the running theme of her interview was the safe, generalized and at times obsequious answer rather than the specific response: she answered in broad strokes, framing most of her answers in the lingo of positive-thinking administrators rather than in illustrative examples drawn from her experience: “Data tells so much but so does talking to kids tell a lot,” “you always have to be out of the box thinking because what one student needs isn’t what another student needs,” “there are times when [employee cuts] absolutely has to be done,” “my belief is to work with the teachers, to work with staff to make sure they know our expectations,” “so often teachers have great ideas but we don’t take into account their great ideas.”
Board members’ questions were specific and probing, as when John Fischer, for example, asked about the “negativism” that can spread in the system through, say, a bad teacher. But he could not get Tapley to answer more specifically than to say that “you have to have those honest conversations” with staff to get beyond the negativism. “I just have good relationship skills, I’ve had teachers who walk in and say, no, we’re not going to do this, and they walk out and see why that has to be done.” But she would not provide actual examples. “We have to have standards and expectations,” she said.
A question from board member Sue Dickinson provides an illustrative example of the way Tapley handled many answers, hewing to the general rather than the specific. “Walk me through a day here as superintendent in Flagler County,” Dickinson asked.
“That’s a great question,” Tapley said, pausing. Her full answer was: “Being in schools, meeting with community and civic organizations, meeting with board members, talking on the phone, working with staff, I think one of the things that is critical is to meet with your staff and ensure that we’re all on the same page and that if there are issues out there, that we can come together as a team and address those issues and solve the problems. I think it’s working–I think I said with all the departments, talking to parents, working with legislature, but on a regular day, I think every day brings a different day, and my hopes would be that I have an opportunity to get in the schools, get to know the principals, spend time with board members, community members, building relationship, so I don’t think there is one day where two days are actually identical.”
Pressed by Dickinson for more details regarding her time in schools, Tapley said she’d spend 40 to 50 percent of her time in schools, then backed up, and said 30 to 35 percent, since strong principals can lead their schools ably enough.
On the other hand, Tapley displayed keen command of the theoretical literature and research about leadership and motivational techniques and clearly enjoyed discussing intricate questions from board members along those lines, citing various mentors and leadership specialists along the way.
Tapley arrived a few minutes before 9, shook hands with most of the board members and a few members of the audience as she introduced herself, smiled broadly, distributed thank-you letters to the panel ahead of time, served herself a cup of cold water, then took what she called “the hot seat” as she continued to banter with board members: she projected a demeanor so comfortable that she seemed like an assistant superintendent from across the hall, rather than from 100 miles away. The interview began at 9:01 a.m.
Tapley was given 15 minutes to open, 15 minutes to close. She spoke of her experience in two counties: Orange County when it had 179,000 students, and now Osceola, with 156,000 students, “so I learned a great deal being in those districts.”
“Not only did you research me but I researched you,” she said, which is what compelled her to apply. Three things stood out for her as she studied the Flagler board: “family, faith, and helping others,” she said, without elaborating. “I walk every day in the faith of God,” she said. She then spoke in generalities about her love of connecting with people and of being “a visionary.” But she had clearly done some homework about individual board members, and tactically displayed that research, as when she referred to one of her children as being in finance, telling board member John Fischer, “I know you were in finance.” Her homework also could appear incomplete: she said one of the reasons she applied was the community’s commitment to education. She cited the successful passage of the sales tax referendum a year ago—but she did not cite the more recent and significant failure of another tax referendum.
“You’re so bubbly and pleasant,” Fischer told her by way of introducing his first question. Speaking of family, he said, he wondered how she’d balance her time between family and work. Tapley apears to be a workaholic. Her children are grown. Three years ago she was widowed—her husband was in a car accident–“so it’s kind of me and my bulldog,” she said, describing long hours at work. (She later said that she still had 12 years to go before retirement.)
Trevor Tucker asked her about her proudest moment in education. Turning around a D-rated school and overseeing a $55 million construction project that created “a campus like no other,” Tapley said. The high school made its way to an A rating. “That probably is a highlight because they talk about leaving a legacy, and I felt that was one,” Tapley said.
“What would be your number one weakness?” board member Sue Dickinson asked. Tapley had trouble answering, and took several detours.
“Having a clear understanding on your budget process,” Tapley said, at least at first. The budget, she said, “has to be able to tell a story,” and she has to be able to understand that story. But no, finance is not her weakness, Tapley cautiously specified, pausing and looking for a clearer answer. “One of my weaknesses,” she said. “I would have to, I would say that I get so passionate about what I do that sometimes I just need to stop,” she said, essentially substituting for a weakness what most would see as a quality.
Dance pressed: Do you mean your passion could lead to some misjudgments? No, she said, and again hesitated to answer. “When you ask about weaknesses, I’m sure I have many,” she said.
Then, finally, she offered a clear weakness that, as it turned out, proved to be a sharp difference with her one rival for the job: “Really knowing where we’re going technology-wise. It is really changing at such a rapid pace,” Tapley said. Oliva, on the other hand, has staked much of his tenure as assistant superintendent, and his candidacy for superintendent, on his command of technology.
Dance was curious about Tapley’s ability to maneuver politics and board relations. He asked about the “turmoil within Osceola’s board,” and her ability to manage the situation “for the benefit of the district.” (Osceola has had four superintendents in four years.)
“It doesn’t appear that this board has the same issue,” she said, flatteringly, to the Flagler panel, then punted regarding the Osceola board, saying that all five members were in place out of passion for the students. “The key was in spending time talking to them face to face,” Tapley said.
Asked about this district’s challenges, Tapley cited the drop in grades of certain schools and the graduation rate (though the graduation rate has been improving steadily and significantly), and building relationships with the community and businesses. “There’s always, no matter what, room to grow, I learn something new every day,” she said.
When Tapley spoke of wanting to innovate with certain programs, Dickinson asked her how she would fund the programs she had in mind. Grants and partnerships with business, Tapley said.
Dance asked specifically what she did in her experience to improve low-achieving students. Tapley said the curriculum in Osceola focused on FCAT reading and yielded good results, then she described more administrative efforts: “You have to have highly effective teachers, but you also have to give them the resources,” Tapley said, adding that the district also needs “clean data, clean data in and clean data out” (an answer Conklin appreciated). She spent a good deal of her answer on describing the intricacies of “clean data.”
Board member Colleen Conklin asked her about the “critical” need for effective principals. “How would you ensure that that is taking place, and if you find that you have a principal that maybe does not meet that role, how do you handle that?”
“Thank you so much for that question,” Tapley said. Principals are burdened with too many duties that keep them away from classrooms, she said, holding up a binder that she put together on how to be an effective leader. “It maps out a plan,” she said, citing various standards, acronyms and data. “This is a book that we started working with principals on and really having some of those honest conversations,” she said. But again, she did not provide the direct answer: how she would handle a principal who actually is not meeting the assigned role. Tapley resorted to describing how principals “set the tone” of leadership in a school, and that “every child is met where they’re at, and moved, and it’s important that you work with your principals, you have those dialogues.”
Dance asked what three priorities Tapley would have for the district. Tapley cited concerns with some FCAT data and professional development before more broadly discussing theories of professional development and leadership. She also cited “obviously math and science, I noticed that there was some great need there, and I will tell you there’s some wonderful resources out there,” Tapley said.
When Tucker asked specifically about the proportion of the budget that should be in the district’s financial reserves, Tapley said: “I really don’t have an exact amount for you but really the goal is to operate within your means and to continue to fund your fund balance.”
She was also asked about zero-tolerance policies. “Equal is not fair, and fair is not equal,” she said, “but there are circumstances that you need to make sure that you get all the facts in looking at the situation,” Tapley said. Dance pressed about the potential for an imbalance in how certain students are disciplined—a subtle reference to the fact that black students are disciplined disproportionately more than white students. “You have to look at it and go into, why is it happening and how can we work on decreasing it before it gets to that point, and sometimes it’s before they get to the next level,” Tapley said.
“What five words would you use to describe what it takes to create a premier learning environment?” Conklin asked.
“In five words: passion, determination,” Tapley said, pausing, as she scribbled notes, “vision—can I change it to visionary? Knowledge”–she kept writing and pausing–“ethical.”
Tapley said she would prefer to start before July 1, when the job actually begins. “I actually have my house up for sale,” she said, a surprising revelation that points to her eagerness to leave Osceola.
Tapley’s interview ended at 10:55 a.m. Oliva’s interview was scheduled to start at 11 a.m.
The TV crew from Flagler Palm Coast High School, which spent Thursday setting up equipment in preparation for today’s webcast, provided live coverage on the web. The interview sessions will also be archived and accessible subsequently.