There is considerable pride and satisfaction with the Flagler County school district, such as in the district’s graduation rate, technology, career programs. There are many challenges as well, such as the need for more mental health services, safety, and maintaining the district’s A rating.
The next school superintendent will have to fit in visibly, inclusively, be a great communicator. She or he will have to be transparent, be a change agent, be approachable, be “a student-centered superintendent” with a “high level of authenticity,” a strong, discerning instructional leader and a visionary who nevertheless respects precedent, has integrity and independent thinking, who doesn’t fear making tough decisions or needs to be popular–someone who’s “not a schmoozer,” as one parent put it.
Those were some of the qualities, challenges and traits a small group–a very small group–of community members want to see in the superintendent the school board will hire in spring to replace Jim Tager, who’s retiring. The ideas were presented at a forum organized to hear the public’s views and wishes. The Florida School Boards Association’s Bill Vogel and John Reichert facilitated the forum at Buddy Taylor Middle School Thursday evening, the second in three weeks. The first was held at the end of October for school staff only. It drew just 16 or 17 people, Reichert said. The forum Thursday evening drew eight, including a custodian who used up his lunch to attend.
“We’ve had some that we’ve had a similar number to this, and then we’ve had some where we’ve had more than 100” people, said Vogel, who frequently consults with districts during their superintendent-hiring phase. But he did not see the low numbers as indicative of indifference, but rather as an indication of stability and satisfaction: “If there are not any hot button issues, any critical issues or incidents that are going on, people do not tend to come out in as large numbers,” he said.
“This is a very high performing district, people are very proud of what’s going on with this district,” Vogel said. The school board is collegial, what issues it has faced have been resolved amicably, and Tager’s tenure has been defined by significant successes, especially the district’s vastly improved graduation rate and, of course, the A rating it regained after many years in B’s limbo. There are also other venues for the public to participate in the choice for the next superintendent, among them an online community survey (it closes Friday) and a yet-to-be-appointed citizens’ advisory committee that will pare down the number of applicants for the board to a shortlist.
The smaller numbers at these forums may also be a reflection of superintendent-search fatigue: it’s the third search in six years.
The focus groups are small, but they may end up having outsized influence since their recommendations are not calibrated to the number of people who made them: they’ll be tabulated by Vogel and Reichert and submitted to the board the same way as if they’d been the product of a group of 200 people.
At what was dubbed as the internal focus group for school employees on Oct. 30, some administrators, some teachers and some support staff showed up. The consensus: They didn’t want someone bent on making wholesale changes. They like the district’s current direction, what Tager had accomplished in his two and a half years. ”They liked what Jim had done as far as coming in and listening, and taking some time to get the lay of the land,” Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, who was at the meeting, said.
In contrast with the group of community members this evening, who did not mention finances, employees saw budgeting as an important challenge for the next superintendent. They also raised some concerns: Too much attention being paid to the district’s classroom-to-careers flagship programs. They appreciated the district’s focus on learning gains and graduation rate, but cautioned against resting on laurels.
Thursday evening the consultants had participants sit in two groups and come up with lists of what they saw as the district’s strengths, the next superintendent’s challenges, and the type of superintendent they hope to see. Participants called out their opinions and ideas while Vogel wrote them on poster boards.
There was satisfaction with the increase in minority students’ graduation rate, the increase in student enrollment in AP and IB classes (advanced placement and the International Baccalaureate) and the Cambridge program, an IB-like program at Matanzas High School, and unlike the staff focus group, there were commendations for the district’s flagship programs. Participants also saw strengths in dual enrollment and the implementation of the one-to-one technology initiative that placed a computer or tablet in every student’s hands. One participant even mentioned the relatively higher teacher-pay rate, at least when compared to surrounding counties.
As far as challenges are concerned, participants see the further implementation of mental health services throughout the district and increasing the number of school guidance counselors and services to support those services as a necessity. “We should say qualified counselors,” one parent said. (One reason the forum drew few people may have been that all local governments were holding a joint meeting in Bunnell at the same time on mental health.)
Other challenges: “I think you’re going to have to underline communication,” one of the participants said. Remaining an A district is also a goal. ‘We need a Superman,” a participant said. A participant noted the “growth in marginalized student population” as a challenge, describing that marginalized population as “anywhere from our ESE students to race to socio-economic status.”
Safety remains a key issue, though the example talked about was that of an elementary-age student who was able to slip out of school and go home without faculty’s awareness.
As for the qualities participants are seeking in their next superintendent: one who’s “inclusive, not exclusive,” who’s big on community outreach, and who “avoids cliques.”
The school board will take the two forums’ results in consideration at a meeting in December, along with results from the online survey, and draw up the advertisement that will circulate in trade publications and online.