The first election forum of the season Wednesday evening featured five Flagler County School Board candidates, four of whom have served a combined 24 years on the board between them and want to serve more: Andy Dance, on the board since 2008, Trevor Tucker, since 2010, John Fischer, who served between 2010 and 2014, when he was defeated by Janet McDonald, and McDonald.
The oddball in the bunch was Paul Anderson, whose only political experience was a failed run two years ago in a school board race in which he polled last in a field of four, with Maria Barbosa eventually winning. Anderson then moved to Tucker’s district to challenge him: Tucker won his last race four years ago by 58 votes out of 12,000 cast after campaigning relatively little and keeping a lower profile than his chairmanship of the school board has enabled him to do this time around.
This evening’s forum, held in the community chamber at Palm Coast City Hall, was hosted ably and briskly by the Flagler County Republican Club and led by Danielle Anderson, the club president, and John Schulten, president of the Flagler County Teenage Republicans. (Danielle Anderson is no relation to Paul Anderson.) Their questions, culled not from Republican Club members as much as from a few people in the community and from a few high school students, proved with a few strange exceptions to be more compelling and specific than the sort of broad-brush questions typical at such forums.
And for the most part the candidates answered them, albeit with never more than two minutes to answer questions that often require volumes. As might be expected from those who’ve served or been serving, all the incumbents were well prepared and comfortable enough to reel off knowledge accumulated over the years, whether about the district’s funding formula, its flagship programs (school-to-work type programs individualized by field and by school), the racial disparity between faculty and student body, and so on.
The four current and past incumbents might as well have been at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum, where the aim is more to explore common ground–as the local Chamber’s breakfasts are, in fact, called–than sharpen political wedges. (The organizer of the Chamber’s Common Ground breakfasts actually contributed questions.) It was about discourse, not debate. The exception was Anderson, whose demeanor–he never looked comfortable or too happy to be there–mixed the aggressive and the defensive, as when he (incorrectly) challenged the the question on racial disparities between faculty and students. The question, asking candidates what their strategy would be to diminish disparities, had explicitly stated that the disparity was “likely hurting black students’ academic performance,” a statement backed up by study after study after study. (The question was contributed by Leslie Giscombe, who heads Flagler’s African American Entrepreneurs Club.)
Rather than answer the question Anderson disputed it: “The premise of the question doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said. “Nobody’s been able to explain to me how suddenly if we’re going to change the make-up of our teachers how that’s going to increase outcomes. We haven’t been able to make that leap. I’m concerned more about hiring the best teachers, no matter what color they are.” The evidence suggests otherwise.
The other candidates didn’t dispute the question but provided different answers: McDonald and Tucker pointed out the higher pay and innovations of the district as means of attracting a more diverse workforce, Fischer played up the African American mentorship program (ironically instituted in part to provide older, black mentors to young black students who don’t have those mentors either in their lives or in their classrooms), and Dance spoke candidly about not yet accomplishing what he set out to accomplish: tracking students who may be developed into teachers either by underwriting their education or developing a teaching academy as part of the flagship programs, or both.
None of the candidates had issues with the flagships, though Anderson, in another attempt to seemingly separate himself from the herd, said “we need to get away from teaching our kids that they’ll be able to learn everything they need to learn and then stay in Flagler to work, because that’s not a realistic goal.” He was using a film and television production program at Belle Terre Elementary, which he said would more usefully steer students if they knew that their eventual work would be in Jacksonville, Orlando or Atlanta. Tucker, his opponent in his sight, turned his answer around and said that the newly created fire academy at Flagler Palm Coast High showed “the easy return on investment” as students there could graduate into jobs in local fire services rather than have to go to Jacksonville or Orlando. Next year, a criminal justice academy will start “so they can then stay here, work in our community and have a good quality of life, a good quality job,” Tucker said.
Later, Anderson seemed to modulate his take on jobs elsewhere, saying students locally should have better exposure and training for blue-collar jobs, but he ended the forum with one last swipe, saying he preferred to speak to people one-on-one. “I don’t love the make-up that this is,” he said of the forum.
Questions were directed at particular candidates, not at all of them. When Dance was asked about “uniforms” in schools (even though there is no such thing, and what dress code exists has been relaxed significantly over the years), Dance said: “Some of those questions are so appropriate for some of the other members up here and they didn’t get those questions.”
“I’ll take them,” Fischer said, knowing Dance’s quip was directed at him: “uniforms” had been Fischer’s idea when he was a board member. The question was clearly submitted by a student, and Dance handled it by referring to the board’s willingness to change its policy by listening to faculty and students as both groups have urged more relaxed attitudes.
There were questions on the use of technology in schools, but the candidate whose approach has been the most questioning and, in its own way, iconoclastically innovative on the subject—McDonald—did not get to answer it. Fischer said computer filters are one way to keep students focused but he complained about phones being in children’s ears all the time, undermining “family values,” while Tucker said his middle school daughter may be the only girl in school without a phone, “and I’m OK with that.” The answers did not, however, address whether the district’s enormous push for technology has shown measurable student progress and success over the years.
Questions then took on an oddly social-democratic tone (especially for a forum hosted by Flagler County Republicans): candidates were asked whether they’d support free, voluntary pre-K for all children from birth onward, a question premised on the assumption (also backed up by evidence) that such approaches improve later outcomes and save money. They were also asked whether the district should have a “structured” program to assist single-parent households, including wellness and intervention services to address discipline, violence, academic performance (again, more along the lines of European social democracy than Southern GOP philosophies). Answering that question, Dance opted for existing programs: “Without maybe a structured program we can accommodate that through the local schools and with the assistance of our sociologists and our social workers,” he said.
But there were also a few strange questions, such as a howler about why students are allegedly provided only milk, not water, in their school lunches—an inaccuracy that would be front-page news if water fountains didn’t line school halls—and why the Flagler district funds “all” sports activities rather than public bathrooms. That, too, is inaccurate, as Tucker pointed out, with capital dollars going to bathrooms far outstripping what sports programs get. A question about audits of federal Title I programs perplexed McDonald, who said the district is under regular audit, whether it’s Title I or any other segment of the operation.
The forum drew 50 to 60 people. If most were very familiar with the candidates—or at least the incumbents—it was nevertheless a chance for the candidates to get their petitions signed by a significant concentration of people so they can make it onto the ballot without having to pay an extra fee. Dance, alone among the candidates, has not yet drawn an opponent.
The next forum, in March, will feature county commission candidates.