The state Department of Education in December published a report on the county-by-county implementation of a 9-year-old law intended to create partnerships between business and school districts. The law gave rise to some 2,000 high school and middle school “career and professional academies” that help shape students’ career goals in specific fields—technology, communications, the arts and so on.
The report is one of innumerable such reports produced by the education bureaucracy. But it has implications for local school boards, particularly if it points to a local trend at variance with the rest of the state. That happens to be the case with the latest so-called Florida Career and Professional Education report: Flagler County schools have about 1,500 students participating in career-themed courses, yet data indicates that fewer than 0.2 percent of those students have earned industry certifications through those courses, and none have earned “digital tool certificates”—a surprise in a district that touts its focus on technology.
The numbers are not significantly better in many other counties, but Flagler does appear to be nearer the bottom in those certifications. There may be caveats.
The numbers need interpretation and analysis. That, anyway, is what School Board member Colleen Conklin thought when she saw the report: she wanted the district administration to be aware of it, to analyze it, and to review it with the rest of the board in open session. That sounds like a routine, necessary part of what board members and school districts do if they aim to stay on top of revealing data, especially data that may raise red flags about local accomplishments (or lack thereof).
But there’s been nothing routine about Conklin’s request, which has instead turned into the most public and blunt-worded clash between her and Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the School Board. The clash put in question the new system of limited board meetings Tucker just implemented, after becoming chairman in November. Conklin, along with board members Andy Dance and Janet McDonald, were openly critical of Tucker’s grip on information flow during a workshop Tuesday, to such a point that the workshop—by then four hours old—devolved into open criticism and lecturing of the chairman, and dismay at his manner of chairmanship.
It was an unusual break from the general harmony the school board has enjoyed to this point for the past several years, through the four years when Dance, then Conklin, chaired the panel.
Tucker on Tuesday had begun insisting that he wanted three board members’ agreement before Conklin could have the state report she wanted discussed placed on the agenda, and even then, only on a workshop agenda a month hence. The board ended by not only agreeing to that, but to requesting that the board’s entire “etiquette” on such matters, as Dance put it, be reviewed, putting in question the viability of Tucker’s tight grip on the flow of information, and board members’ prerogatives.
It was only a 20-minute discussion. But exasperation spilled over.
“This board should not be waiting another 30 days to discuss something that is a state report,” Conklin told Tucker and the rest of the board. “This is shameful, honestly. I am so insulted.”
And Dance, who notoriously measures every word before speaking, seemed not to hesitate to lecture Tucker in this case: “I understand where you’re coming from, but with the change in the meeting structure, you’re going to have to be a little more flexible,” Dance told him. “It is unrealistic to ask somebody to wait 30 days to even discuss whether we can put it on a workshop.”
Conklin alerted Tucker of the report in a Feb. 24 email. (The email went into more details than Conklin should have broached in a note to a fellow school board member, on an issue that she was asking to be discussed by the board, thus potentially violating the Sunshine law. Tucker responded, and Conklin responded to that, with all three emails going into details that are most likely not permissible outside of publicly noticed board meetings. But that’s another story.)
In her original email, Conklin wrote Tucker: “We repeatedly are leaving workforce dollars on the table. There are close to 250 secondary certifications across multiple sectors. I’ve attached this years list of certifications available and the states performance report. It would serve our district and students well to collectively review the report and discuss strategies for increasing our student participation. You will note on page 25 that only .1% or 48 of our high school students actually earned a CAPE Industry certification. I’ve raised the question of low numbers before in the hope that it was a possible error but with the repeat of such low numbers it would seem we still have an issue. I don’t want us to loose another year. “
Tucker replied almost a week later, saying he’d bring it up at the March 7 workshop to see if three board members want it workshopped the following month. “I also think it would be a good time to see how the committee on this topic is doing,” he wrote.
Further discussing intricacies of district issues, Conklin replied that the committee has lacked follow-through because of turnover, “which is why I am asking for a public discussion to take place with the Board.” Shen then lost patience with Tucker: “I am not interested in having another 2 months to pass without follow through. This is a state report that has been released in January and should be reviewed by the board, she wrote. “This impacts our educational programming and our budget. It is simply unacceptable to have 1% of high school students participating in industry certification programs. We are either having a programming issue, data entry or curriculum issue. I have asked for the last two years for this to be addressed and was promised it would be. The situation has not gotten any better.”
And that was in writing. The decibel levels rose in person at the March 7 workshop, where Conklin and Tucker repeated their written contentions for the rest of the board to hear. Conklin was incensed that she should have to have three board members’ permission to have a state report with direct implications on district policies discussed.
“If this requires the district to do some work, I feel three of us have to say, I want the district to do that work,” Tucker said.
“As a board member, every single board member sitting here has the right to request information,” Conklin countered. “We don’t need a consensus to request information. If we’re going to put forward an action item, then yes, for an agenda, I think it requires consensus. But I think it’s unfair to say that as a sitting board member, we can’t request information, we need consensus.”
“So if I go out there and say I want some outlandish report to be created, and it takes the district 85 hours of their time, but I’m the only one who wants that information, you feel that that’s OK?” Tucker asked.
“Mr. Tucker,” Conklin said, using the sort of tone—and italicized honorific—that a mother uses toward an unruly child, “I was asking for the review of a state report.” She could not understand Tucker’s resistance. “Because as part of the review of the state report, the district sure as heck better be looking at the information in that report, and so is the data that’s part of the question, is the data correct in the report? Because the district doesn’t have to pull any data if it’s not. If the data in this report, then they’re just presenting the report so that we, as the elected body, are aware of what is happening on this particular issue.”
She continued, “If we are all elected, we have a right—”
“—and responsibility,” fellow-board member Janet McDonald interjected.
“… to request and information and share that with the public as we see fit,” Conklin continued. “It is ridiculous to expect that we would have to wait an entire month for staff to come and basically review a public report with us. It’s silliness.”
Tucker, always of few words, would not budge. Nor would Conklin.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I think that’s very inappropriate,” she said, questioning the new schedule of one workshop and one meeting a month—half the number of meetings previously held.
McDonald reminded Tucker of the Florida School Board Association seminar they had just attended, as chairman and vice-chair, where they were urged to review their practices. “Their whole position was that the school board needs to step up and be a visible, operational force in the community,” McDonald said.
There was clear agreement among all board members but Tucker that district staff should be asked to review matters as requested by board members, as long as the time commitment was reasonable. If it wasn’t, then the chairman could seek broader endorsements from a majority of the board. “So just be more flexible would be my recommendation in the future to make this system work,” Dance told Tucker.
“What if only one board member actually wanted to workshop this?” Tucker continued.
“Then you’ll have to make a determination on the type of information,” Dance said, again suggesting—remarkably—that Tucker’s judgment was missing the mark. “Again, a state report that directly affects school board business seems to be of public interest and of interest to the board as a whole. You should be able to determine that type of issue.”
“But I would just like the whole board to say yes or no on these items,” Tucker insisted.
“It’s not that easy,” Dance said. “If you’re going to stick to that you’re going to have to input some reason and judgment into those decisions, otherwise the month-long meeting structure is going to collapse.”
The next meeting is March 21. The report in question will not be discussed then. It will have to wait until the April workshop. But from all appearances at this week’s workshop, Tucker’s rules may be revised then, if he is to avoid the “collapse” Dance cautioned against.
“Any other requests for the next workshop?” Tucker asked at the end of Tuesday’s epic session.
“We might let you know during the next meeting, Mr. Tucker.” Conklin said archly.