At the very end of a workshop two weeks ago School Board Chairman Janet McDonald made a statement that stunned her colleagues and that got more perplexing since for its timing and manner: with Superintendent Jim Tager sitting inches to her right–and sipping from his water bottle twice in the space of 90 seconds, as if to steady himself from what he was hearing–McDonald said it was time to search for a new superintendent.
Not only that: she’d actually called the Florida School Board Association and spoken with Andrea Messina, who’d conducted the search for the district that resulted in Tager’s hiring two years ago, to feel her out regarding the next search.
Tager’s three-year contract doesn’t run out for another year and two weeks. He did not expect this to come up for discussion so soon. McDonald did not speak to him about it, did not alert him ahead of time that she’d bring it up. The school board had not discussed it, nor had it reached consensus, let alone given McDonald direction, to solicit ideas or contact the school board association and to go so far as talk financial terms for a consultant. But McDonald did so, in effect turning Tager into a lame-duck.
“Because we had such a breathless search last time, and with what happened in Volusia, I reached out to Andrea Messina just to see what the lay of the land was with FSBA as far as superintendent searches,” McDonald said at the workshop earlier this month. “We had a conversation about having a less intense and earlier search, just so we had all the opportunities available, and she thought that would be a good idea because as she said there are several districts, I don’t remember right now, but several districts that she knew that were going to be looking for superintendents, so it’s going to be a very busy time. I wanted the board to kind of think about how they want to move forward. She also said FSBA would be glad to help us.”
The cost would remain $25,000, the amount the association charged two years ago.
Tager was shocked. “It makes you think when that came up in an agenda meeting–do they want me here,” he said this evening, after the subject came up again at tonight’s meeting, albeit with more reassuring words from board member Andy Dance. “I was kind of surprised at that agenda meeting as well. I guess I’m probably the ultimate optimist. I guess I was surprised that came up. Number one, because I didn’t know about it, number two, I guess time is going by fast, I’m really enjoying my experience here.”
In fairness to McDonald’s rogue approach, talk of a new superintendent is not entirely unexpected. The board hired Tager two years ago on a three-year contract knowing that there was a finality to those three years. Tager is in the so-called drop program, the state’s deferred retirement compensation program that, once triggered, requires the participant to stop working four years hence, and to be entirely out of any agency that participates in the Florida Retirement System for at least six months. The individual may then return to the agency, even to his or her former job, if it’s still there.
Last year then-Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman, who was in the drop program, left her job title only and found a way to keep working for the county, for more pay, by working through a private consultant. The episode brought to light the seamier side of drop work-arounds, something that, even if he intends to return, Tager says he would never do. He said he would sit out entirely for six months. (“I would not put the board in an awkward position–some people work through a consultant and that type of thing, I would never do that,” he said.)
But that’s assuming the board would plan to have him back–an assumption Tager is not making: he’s not had conversations with board members or his wife about his future here, the McDonald announcement having taken him by such surprise. With more than a year left on his contract, he didn’t think it was time yet.
Dance was not at the workshop two weeks ago. He was preparing to fly up to Massachusetts for the Future Problem Solvers competition, where Flagler Palm Coast High School’s team was crowned Grand Champion. This evening, he brought up McDonald’s comments from two weeks ago.
“I was a little bit caught by surprise with the discussion about pursuing a conversation with the school board association,” Dance said. “My hope is that we reach an agreement with Mr. Tager for a new contract, and that the discussion at the next workshop is about how we fit in a six-month interim superintendent. Because we can bring Mr. Tager back. He just has to sit out six months as far as the state law is concerned. Again, the hope would be that he’s willing to continue on and we can extend a new contract to him, and then discuss how we fill an interim superintendent into that period at the end of his term.”
McDonald said the only reason she brought up the matter at the previous meeting was “to know where we stand” with the FSBA, as “a call to see the lay of the land.” She said Dance’s approach is not precluded from being on the next workshop. “But that’s what the discussion will be about then.” She said the last thing she wanted was “another breathless search. It was very fast the last time, just because of necessity, and there are lots of ways to do it so the business of the board and the district can go on without having us be focused on, you know, not daily business of the board. So that’s why I brought it up.”
“I think the first topic of conversation is if he’s willing to continue to work with us, that we discuss that as well, bringing him back on first before we do a search,” Dance said.
“Anything about that topic can come up at that workshop meeting,” McDonald said. “I brought it up so everybody could be aware, could be doing some thinking, could be doing some contact with FSBA if they want to directly, or any other search team, if they didn’t like that. I wanted people to know they could contact or request that we contact another search firm, if that was their design. But we have to be thoughtful and planful about these things.”
Still, McDonald’s explanation included no hint of support or reassurance for Tager–not two weeks ago, as she sat next to him, not tonight. She seemed instead to be focused on a search for a new person–not a temporary one. The workshop will take place in July.
In an interview this evening, Tager repeatedly said that he will use the next few weeks to think about his future. He was planning a week-long vacation with his wife, when he expects to discuss his future in Flagler. He is also planning to meet with school board members individually, ahead of the July workshop.
What he does know and says repeatedly is that he has and continues to enjoy his work in Flagler. “It’s been a great experience. We’ve moved here, I like the people I work with, and I think probably our biggest jewel is our students,” he said, citing a list of recent district achievements, some of which he’d just spoken of at this evening’s meetings, including FPC’s Grand Champions title, a national award, first in Florida, for Ryan Diesing and the technology department that the district is receiving Sunday in Philadelphia, the district’s improving graduation rate, the college-entrance successes of FPC’s IB class, and so on.
Asked if there’d been any issues between him and McDonald, he said he continues to meet with each board member individually once a week or so and that, with McDonald, “there’s no issue on my end.” But he was clearly bothered by the way the discussion had sprung up at the board, and by the way it unexpectedly jarred his own evaluation of his standing with the board. Other board members did not speak of the matter this evening.