If you want to grasp why ego-driven tensions flare so periodically–and needlessly–between Palm Coast and county government, you need only look at the city’s donation this week of a surplus fire truck to the Fire Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School.
What was supposed to be a useful, feel-good donation from the city to the district turned into a power play by the city, and more specifically by Jim Landon, the city manager, who as the county sees it shoved through the donation and the agreement controlling it by neglecting to include those who run the academy itself: Flagler County Fire Rescue and its chief, Don Petito.
The Flagler County School Board tried to smooth things over Tuesday, approving the agreement with Palm Coast with a few caveats–namely, making it clear that any donation to the academy will be up to the county to use or not use within the purview of its program, and making minor changes to the agreement with Palm Coast.
Landon, again ignoring the district, earlier today pushed out a characteristically haughty and inaccurate press release that appears to purposefully ignore Flagler County’s role in creating the program and the county’s continued involvement in running it, while playing up Palm Coast’s role, which, beyond providing ride-alongs to students, happens to be minimal: the program is taught by Flagler County Fire Rescue Lt. Andrew Kepler, but the release dropped the word “county” from Kepler’s role. The city release states that “Palm Coast Fire and other local fire departments work with Flagler Schools to make the new program a success,” though in fact the program originated with Petito and is a county-driven, county-taught initiative.
The release quotes ex-FPC principal Dusty Sims, who Landon imperiously refers to as “my principal,” and with whom Landon discussed the donation (the two met frequently), to the exclusion of Petito. (The fire academy is one of the district’s many flagship programs, and likely its most visible. It is designed to give students a hands-on education, preparing them for the workplace.)
All that has left school district officials, whose concern is their students rather than egos, in the middle of an unnecessary mess they would have rather not had to clean up, as they were attempting to do Friday, urging a rewrite and correction of the city’s premature release: Landon sent out the release without the district’s knowledge, and without acknowledging the School Board’s actions on Tuesday. He initially resisted corrections, then relented.
Some of the tension had bubbled up at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“It’s not just the district and the city of Palm Coast. We have a fire academy because we have a relationship with the county fire department,” School Board member Janet McDonald said at the time. “It’s like having a partnership and one person saying, well I’ll go talk to you over here, and then I’ll just bring it in and whatever that other person in that partnership, you can take it or leave it. That’s not the point. The whole thing started a couple of years ago because we didn’t all come to the table. This is the same thing. We are not improving our relationships here, and we need to for the betterment of the whole program.”
From the county’s perspective, the sticking point in the donation of the surplus 2004 Kenworth T-300 fire engine, aside from not being involved, is the material effect of the equipment on the program: it has to appropriately mesh with the curriculum. There’s little likelihood that any fire apparatus donation would not mesh, but Petito wanted those issues cleared ahead of time, not after the fact, so as not to jeopardize the program’s accreditation.
“I don’t see no reason why we can’t work through this stuff, we’ve said that since the beginning,” Joe King, the county’s deputy fire chief, told the school board. “We’ve gotten gear from multiple departments, hose for them to roll in the school is no big deal.” He said guidelines set by the state could be added to the city’s agreement with the district or the county’s memo of understanding with the district. “But here’s the obvious: if something is donated to the school and it’s handed to us and said, do you want to use it and we say no, then it should go back. That’s where I felt we were two years ago.” He added: “With moving forward, we could have moved through this and had this discussion and probably fixed this a lot faster.”
Jerry Forte, named this week Palm Coast fire chief starting in September, also addressed the board: “The students need this,” he said, “because two years ago when we started this process, they were promised a truck that they were going to be working off of, the truck was supposed to be part of this process. For whatever reason, we’ve got this ability to give those students a truck and let them feel what it’s like to pull hose off the truck, work off the truck, wear an air pack off of the truck and give them that real-life experience that they’re going to need to make this part of the real-life experience that they think they’re going to get. It’s available, we’ve got it, you can have it. We’ll work with Kristy about getting the finer details worked out, but we’re not going to scrap it, this truck is going to be part of the school board program at some point and we’ll make it happen.”
Petito this afternoon said it’s inaccurate to imply that the program has not had a fire truck. “We have three fire trucks that we use” to train students, he said–the proximity of Flagler County Fire Rescue’s Station 92, within sight of campus, helps–and one truck is dedicated to the program. It is stored at the agency’s vehicle storage facility.
McDonald had attempted to table discussion of the agreement until the county had been brought into the discussion more formally. That did not get the rest of the board’s support, but it led to a long discussion and various proposals to clarify the agreement with the city and the county’s controlling role.
Board member Colleen Conklin wanted to eliminate a provision allowing for student ride-alongs, which has nothing to do with the donated truck (which is to be stationary). The board agreed to that. Conklin also wanted a few other changes (including a provision that “no equipment can be used without prior approval of the Flagler County fire Department,” but those were to be added to the county’s agreement with the district.
“Once we take possession we can do with it what we want,” School Board attorney Kristy Gavin said.
That, and a few other acknowledgments about the county’s role, seemed to resolve the matter.
“The commitment from the county to the Fire Academy is extraordinary, and they need to be recognized if this is going to be a showpiece for the academy,” School Board member Andy Dance said. “Everybody who’s participated in helping this program get to where it is and get off the ground, we would like this to be the showpiece and be able to thank everybody involved in putting this program together through this vehicle. This vehicle will be the branding piece for the academy.” He said he didn’t want the donation jeopardizing the program in any way, but said Petito had assured him the donation would do no such thing, understanding that it left it in the academy’s hands to decide how to handle the equipment, if it was to handle it at all. “I don’t think any of us can properly thank the county for the investment they’ve made in our students,” Dance continued.
There was no hint of such acknowledgment, let alone thanks, in Palm Coast’s release today.
Students enrolled in the academy cheered when the board voted unanimously to approve the agreement–with the Conklin amendment. Superintendent Jim Tager summed up the matter: “If we work together as a city and a county for our students, it’s the best thing.”
Shortly after 1 p.m., three hours after issuing its initial release, Palm Coast sent another release with a red-lettered correction at the top that read: “See below an updated version on how the donated fire truck will be used – that will be up to Flagler County Fire Rescue and Flagler Schools, and details are still being worked out. Also, in consultation with Flagler Schools, we made a few other changes to the release to make sure it’s clear and accurate.”
Kepler’s title was corrected, but the county’s role in starting and running the academy was still muted.