Janet McDonald, who chairs the Flagler County School Board through November, says she favors a broad search for the next superintendent but does not detect much interest from internal candidates to take on the job.
The school district is about to taken on its sixth superintendent search since 2005. Three of its last five superintendents, going back to the brief but tumultuous tenure of Robert Corley at the beginning of the last decade, have been internal picks, or picks of candidates who had a long association with the district. McDonald, in contrast with several of her colleagues on the board, doesn’t see that happening this time.
“I know that there are some with the skill set, I don’t know that there is someone with the heart to do that,” McDonald said in a half-hour interview. “I know we have some folks that are very broadly aware of the district and their needs both in depth and breadth, but I don’t know if that’s in their hearts to take that on.” Potential contenders would include Lynette Shott, director of student and community engagement, and Earl Johnson, who’s essentially been Jim Tager’s deputy.
Tager announced last week that he would resign at the end of June 2020, finishing his three-year contract. He is required to leave the district for at least six months, being in the Florida Retirement System’s deferred retirement option program. He considered returning after six months, if board members were willing to discuss such an arrangement. At least three board members wanted to see that happen–Colleen Conklin, Andy Dance, Trevor Tucker–and McDonald said she would have renewed Tager’s contract if she could.
But upon reflection, Tager ruled out the option, not wanting to go anywhere near the controversial potential of going that route, given its damaging history in Flagler (the county’s former deputy administrator, Sally Sherman, schemed around the law to keep working despite being in the “drop” system, by working as a “consultant” for six months before reclaiming her old post. The move contributed to the county administrator losing his job, and she followed.)
Tager was also “shocked,” in his word, when McDonald herself brought up the matter of looking for a new superintendent at a workshop several weeks ago, without telling him she would do so. With more than a year left on his contract at the time, McDonald’s move blindsided Tager. He felt unappreciated, and his job less secure than it seemed.
The relationship between McDonald and Tager has been cordial and professional, but it doesn’t have the same level of effusive support as that between Tager and other board members. McDonald was asked to describe that relationship.“I’m totally appreciating all of the accomplishments that have been done in the last two years,” McDonald said. “We meet weekly. I think it’s very professional, I have appreciated our conversations and he is definitely a person who is very focused and willing to have conversations about expanding what we do, and everything comes down to how do we posture ourselves to get our word out, our message out, about Flagler. And I think he’s been a very good ambassador out there.”
An official familiar with the situation said Tager read the tea leaves, saw McDonald would be the chair through the year, and opted to end his tenure on a high mark, having just brought the district back to an A rating for the first time in either years (since the days of Superintendent Bill Delbrugge, when the district went on a four-year streak of A ratings.
McDonald said she intended nothing more than to start the conversation and position the district in a better place than it had been in the previous two searches, which had, in fact, been hurried and more pro-forma like than deliberate. Former Superintendent Jacob Oliva was picked after having been seen as the front-runner throughout, with other applicants turning into sacrificial lambs. Delbrugge had positioned Janet Valentine as his successor in what, at the time, was described as a succession plan. Likewise, she positioned Oliva to take over, a job he had to take on prematurely when Valentine suffered a stroke. (She has since recovered, in retirement.)
But McDonald had begun conversations on her own weeks ago with the Florida School Board Association’s Andrea Messina, who had been the consultant with the district when it conducted the search that led to Tager’s appointment. When the school board meets in workshop Tuesday, it will discuss what route to take in the coming search, and will likely agree to hire Messina again.
“I don’t think our conversations were going to be negative. People who have had negative experiences tend to think that,”McDonald said, noting that several districts are looking for superintendents and she wanted Flagler to have choice picks. “It was more or less to give the board some things to think about as we went to our information workshop. It wasn’t anything about which way to go.” McDonald also wishes to involve more internal employees in the search, as opposed to just a community panel, the board and the consultant.
Two of the last five superintendents (Delbrugge and Oliva) were principals at Flagler Palm Coast High School, which has also been the district office’s farm team for administrators. Tager’s appointment of Tom Russell as principal there a few weeks ago naturally raises questions: was Tager positioning Russell to be in line for superintendent? Russell had been the superintendent in Volusia for almost five years before the school board there abruptly ended his tenure. Despite a cut in salary of almost half, Russell agreed to the principalship at FPC, fruit of an obvious professional relationship with Tager (who had himself spent the bulk of his years in education in Volusia, some of them with Russell as his boss).
McDonald said she did not see Russell becoming the next superintendent. “I look forward to hearing about what he intends he seems like he’s energetic and really focused. There are lots of questions across the community because of what’s been in the Daytona papers, but you don’t know the whole story, and this is an opportunity for us to benefit from his expertise and hopefully that will be his focus,” McDonald said of Russell. He’s been hired, she said, “to be the principal at FPC.”
As for Tager, McDonald was asked directly whether she’d renew his contract, if it were an option. “Sure, if he was interested,” she said. “That’s not the situation that we’re in right now.”