When Joe Rizzo found out Deborah Williams was retiring as executive director of the Flagler Education Foundation, he asked his wife who she thought could be found as a replacement. She told him he should apply.
“After thinking about it for about a day, I don’t know that there’s anybody who’s any more passionate or cares more about the foundation than I do, after being involved in it for the last eight years,” Rizzo said. “It is where any of my philanthropic efforts have gone. I have invested in the foundation over the last eight years whether it’s helping them run the golf tournament or putting on the Josh Crews fundraiser or anything for that matter, from being a past president to being a board member.”
Some 60 people had applied for the job to head the Flagler County School Board’s nearly 30-year-old non-profit and direct-support organization, an entity with $2.5 million in assets that raises money on behalf of the board and dispenses it through teacher grants, literacy programs, scholarships, and the STUFF bus (which distributes clothes and shoes to children who can’t afford them).
“We have been blessed to have the leadership and experience that Deborah has provided to help take some of our initiatives and find the people in the community to be on our team to support them” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said. “An example I’ll use is, when we developed our college and career readiness system with our flagship programs, we met with their board and their foundation, said we have this vision, this is the types of programs that we need in our schools, but these are the resources we need, these are the talents, skill that we need, these are places we need to go for field trips or supplies, and Deborah was that conduit for the school district to be that liaison in the community to build those partnerships.”
Rizzo, Oliva said, will build on that foundation. “He’s local, he understands business, he’s well connected, he’s a product of the school system, and he has that vision of building on the foundation that has been laid,” Oliva said.
Rizzo, a restaurateur by profession and a native of Flagler who several years ago flirted with a run for school board, made the final cut. He is part owner of three restaurants—Woody’s BBQ in Palm Coast, Bull Creek Fish Camp in Bunnell, and Island Grille in Flagler Beach—and a gun business in Volusia County. He’s deeply connected to the local business community, and Trevor Tucker, the current school board chairman, makes a second home of Woody’s, which is responsible for much of Tucker’s diet.
“We’ve been in business in Flagler County for 18 years,” Rizzo, 42, said, “and growing up in Flagler County I have always said to myself that if I could give back to the system that educated me and sent me to college and allowed me to come back, then I would in whatever way I could. So in the years that we’ve been in business we’ve made an effort to try to connect as much as we can with the schools. When Bill and I first sat down and talked about the education foundation”—Bill Delbrugge, the former superintendent who also sublet a table at Woody’s, asked Rizzo to join the foundation in 2010—“that was part of the way I could get back to the system that invested in me. Which I think is interesting now, because with the way classrooms-to-careers has formed, I’m that guy. I went through Flagler County classrooms, and ended up with a career in Flagler County because of it.”
“With the way classrooms-to-careers has formed, I’m that guy.”
The classroom-to-careers angle is key in Rizzoi’s profile, because it’s been key to the foundation’s re-direction in the last few years, in line with Superintendent Jacob Oliva’s focus on the initiative, also known as the district’s flagship program. Each school has developed a focus on “target industries” considered by the district and the county’s economic development to be central to the region’s economy, and to the county’s ability to hold on to graduates as they enter the workforce. Some schools focus on agriculture, some on health care, some on science and engineering.
Williams considers that her most significant achievement in the last three years—“aligning what the foundation’s work behind the classrooms-to-careers,” she said. “That initiative from the district has given us real direction, it’s helped us in the development of our board, and we really see that connection between what we do, representing the community to our board, and economic development.”
Williams was not involved in the succession plan. A five-member selection committee conducted the interviews to fill the post. The committee consisted of Foundation President Matthew Maxwell of Craig Flagler Palm Funeral Home, Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle, Joe Marotti, a member of the county’s economic development board, Nancy Carlton, a former Education Foundation board member, and Catherine Evans, a realtor. All but Carlton are current executive board members of the foundation.
“He’s a local businessman who in my opinion has the pulse on the community as far as the education system,” said Beadle, who’ll be the next president of the foundation, “past president of the foundation, so he knows the integral workings of it.” Rizzo, Beadle said, is also aware of the fund-raising challenges ahead and has ideas to meet them. Last year the foundation raised $139,000 through fund-raising, up from $114,000 the year before, and had overall operating revenue of $153,000, up just under $3,000 from the previous year, according to its latest audit.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, it wasn’t a hands-down,” Beadle said. “We had some really good applicants, but when it came to the bottom of the ninth and we had to make the pitch of the day he was the guy.”
On Monday, Rizzo will begin the $55,000-a-year job. The salary is a bit lower than Williams’s which was around the $60,000 mark, but Rizzo’s pay package includes an incentive component, giving him extra pay should he exceed certain fund-raising goals. Those benchmarks have not yet been set. The committee interviewing Rizzo also discussed potential conflicts of interest between his new position and his ownership stake in his restaurants, which he is maintaining.
“He has a plan that was already in place prior to him even applying for this position and thru the interview process we spoke about that at great length and don’t believe that’s going to be an issue,” Beadle said. In the past, Rizzo’s businesses have been quite supportive of foundation events such as the annual golf tournament. “We look at that and make sure we don’t have those conflicts of interest,” Beadle said. “The school board has a vested in this as well, so we kind of go by their guidelines.”
The way Rizzo explains it is this: “We have made some changes in the restaurant so the structure of the restaurant can function with me being a shareholder and having very little to do with the daily operations of the restaurant, and still being a vested partner.” He will be devoting himself full time to the foundation job, and does not see conflicts ahead.
He was more focused on that new job. At one point in an interview this afternoon Rizzo, who is bullish on the education system locally, said he sincerely believed that “the future of education is going to start in Flagler County.” He cited the developments of the last few years such as the one-to-one initiative, putting a computer or a tablet in the hands of every student, the science, math and engineering emphasis, the flagship programs. “We’re in a state of the art education model that Jacob has put together, and I really truly believe that with the advancements of the projects that are going on, that this is really, truly the premier education system in the country.” He pauses, then adds: “Or is going to be.”
As for Williams, 66, who had followed Nicole Brose five years ago, and was given a modest retirement party this afternoon at the Government Services Building—pizza, salad and balloons—it’s time for a break. “Working has been pretty much my life,” Williams said. She now wants to devote herself to three daughters in the Tampa-St. Pete area, four grandchildren, and yoga. She loved the work, but, she said of retirement, “I celebrate the time it’s going to leave for me to do other things.”