Last Updated: 12:54 p.m.
Superintendent Jim Tager will retire in 11 months and will not subsequently return even if the Flagler County School Board were to make arrangements for it, he told the board and staff in a letter.
Tager is required to retire at the end of June 2020 because he’s in the Florida Retirement System’s deferred retirement option program, or DROP, which requires participants to not work in any FRS-affiliated government for at least six months after retirement. There had been some possibility that Tager would leave for six months and return to his position after that, as at least two school board members had said they’d favor. But Tager, after thinking about it on a week-long vacation with his wife, ruled that out.
“There may have been options, such as sitting out for some time and then possibly returning,” he told the board in a letter. “However, I’ve seen how some other governments have handled that option and I did not feel it appropriate I put our School Board in that position.”
He had previously alluded to the way Flagler County government, under former Administrator Craig Coffey, had schemed around the law to enable then-Deputy Administrator Sally Sherman to continue working, but through a private consultant, until her six months were up, at which time she returned to work in her old position. The scheming, once revealed, drew severe criticism, even from some county commission members (though they’d been aware of it privately), and helped lead to Coffey’s and Sherman’s demise in Flagler. Tager didn’t want to be associated with that sort of arrangement, even though he’d talked of possibly sitting out for good for six months.
But in the letter he sent today, Tager made clear that his decision was framed by “the recent unexpected comment” at a June board meeting by Janet McDonald, the school board chair, who started a conversation about his replacement. McDonald did so without forewarning Tager, leaving him in shock and disappointed, and feeling less than wanted.
Tager was traveling to see family in North Carolina today and could not be reached. But Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, had spoken with him about the decision, and specifically about his decision not to return. “I had that discussion with him, June 30, that’s it with Flagler schools,” Wheeler said. “He explained to me and the executive team that he did not want this to be a distraction.” Wheeler noted that it had been clear that “it was a very, very tough decision for him and his family.”
The school board was aware of Tager’s three-year limit when it hired him two years ago, but never disclosed it publicly.
“To provide a future plan that is in the best interest of this district, I respectfully wish to inform you that my plan is to retire from Flagler Schools on June 30th, 2020 as agreed upon in my contract,” Tager wrote. “I firmly believe it is of paramount importance to offer this heartfelt decision; a difficult decision, but one my family and I have carefully and judiciously agreed upon.” He outlined his and the district’s accomplishments in his brief tenure so far and looked forward to further milestones in his remaining year.
The letter does not explicitly rule out a return, but a district spokesman said he has, in fact, ruled that out.
The superintendent’s announcement follows on the heels of the district regaining its A rating for the first time in eight years: that was Thursday’s announcement. Tager was jubilant. So were district officials from board members to principals on down. Two board members credited Tager’s work directly.
Tager’s resignation means that the district will have to begin a search process this summer, and will end up with yet another superintendent next July, what will be its fifth in 10 years. Bill Delbrugge left in 2010, was followed by Janet Valentine, then Jacob Oliva, then Tager. Valentine and Oliva were appointed as if by right of succession. Tager was appointed after a relatively hurried process of just a few months, after Oliva was picked as a vice chancellor at the state Department of Education. Tager, at the time a principal in Volusia County, was the first outsider appointed superintendent since Robert Corley, who had preceded Delbrugge (and whose tenure proved to be a disaster for the board.)
There is no clear favorite this time, at least not publicly (though there’d been rumors of Vernon Orndorff’s return: Orndorff had been an early favorite before the Tager appointment, until he took a superintendent position in Texas. He did not return a call to his office in Texas today before this story published.) Tager’s announcement today gives the board ample time for a more deliberate search.
Colleen Conklin, who is about take part in the seventh search for a superintendent in her two-decade tenure on the board, said her first reaction to Tager’s decision was, half-seriously, to reject it–only half-seriously since, in reality, his mind was made up.
“I don’t think for Jim anything is just a knee-jerk reaction and done in a moment. It may seem or feel like all of a sudden, but I’m sure he’s been weighing very heavily on his mind,” Conklin said today. “The fact is, we did know his contract was ending at the end of this year, but I think many of us were hoping there was a possibility of him staying on.”
In fact, Conklin’s statement today echoed those of Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker previously, giving Tager a solid majority if he wished to work out an arrangement to return. But Conklin credited him for eschewing that approach. “I believe he thinks that would be controversial and he doesn’t want it to be controversial, and understands that when we get into something like that, it takes our eyes off of what’s important, and that’s student achievement.”
To Conklin, Tager had immediately taken the board’s concerns about graduation rates and student achievement seriously, and turned in better results on both counts. “I will say out of all the superintendents I’ve worked with, he really, truly is a wonderful educational leader,” Conklin said.
“I’ll say this in defense of Janet,” Conklin continued, referring to McDonald. “I do believe that she brought this topic forward because she wanted to ensure that we had an appropriate timeline if this was the outcome. So because we have this amount of time that’s in front of us at the moment, I think it’d be wise to work with the Florida School Board Association and allow us to possibly go for a broad national search.”
Conklin has been part of school board decisions since the tenure of Robert Williams as superintendent at the turn of the millennium. Most of the superintendents hired since have been from within. Conklin is leaving that door open again. “I do believe we have individuals in our leadership cabinet that have the ability to lead the district,” she said. “Don’t forget, we’ve promoted some of our best superintendents from within.” Conklin did not name anyone.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]