Colleen Conklin’s decision to apply for superintendent in Flagler, to replace the retiring Jim Tager, continues to ripple through the process.
Thirty-five people have applied to be the next superintendent of Flagler schools. As it has in previous superintendent searches, the school board appointed a panel of advisers to filter the list down to the 10 or 12 best candidates before the board itself short-lists it to the four or five it will interview. That panel met for the first time Tuesday evening, mostly for a procedural session, learning about its responsibilities as a decision-making body under the Sunshine and open-records laws.
There were no decisions. The three-inch binders collecting hard copies of the 35 applications were never cracked. But the two-hour session was no less spirited or revealing of some of the opinions and concerns around the table, or just beyond it, though just two people attended the meeting. One of them was Stephen Furnari, who chairs the district’s exceptional student education advisory board who who had been appointed to the selection committee, but was informed on Friday, along with three other appointees, that he would not be seated.
Furnari, Palm Coast City Council member Jack Howell, past School Board member Judy Conte and parent Sandra Shank had all been appointees of Colleen Conklin‘s, the school board member who announced last week that she was applying for the superintendent’s position. (Each school board member appointed four individuals.) On Friday, School Board attorney Kristy Gavin said that Conklin’s appointees would be excluded to avoid any possibility of conflict. On Monday, Conklin announced she would be stepping away from all board activities and meetings until the board appoints the next superintendent. That decision is set for a special meeting on March 10.
The Conklin factor overlaid the discussion on at least seven occasions Monday evening.
Katie Hansen, the teacher and head of the Flagler County Education Association, the teachers union, questioned whether there would be any Conklin appointees around the table. “What I don’t want to see is, we name her or someone else, ultimately by the board, and then someone has an opportunity to come back and file a lawsuit or make some kind of claim that this process wasn;t transparent and fair,” Hansen said.
Gavin, who led the first part of the meeting, explained how she, in consultation with the Florida School Board Association, opted to exclude the Conklin appointments so “there’s fidelity in the process.” That raised a question from Jill Woolbright, a retired teacher who is herself running for a school board seat this year, who questioned how the Conklin appointees could have been excluded without a board decision.
“There was a process named and each board member was given a number, four people,” Woolbright said. “The decision to remove those four people that she named, can anyone question that decision?” Woolbright was referring to a subsequent legal challenge. “I understand your explanation and the thinking, I’m concerned about someone questioning that whole process and how it was laid out by the school board. The school board itself did not make the decision to remove those four people. I don’t know who made that decision.”
Gavin said she and FSBA consultants did, confirming that the board had no role. Another panelist raised the issue of Conklin’s seat after the March 17 appointment: what if she were to be named superintendent–who would fill her seat? Gavin said normally the governor would do so, since local board members are barred from filling the seat (as, say, Palm Coast City Council members might under certain circumstances, when a seat becomes vacant). But a governor appointment to the school board some years ago took 10 months. In this case, Gavin said, the seat would remain open until the August and November elections: even if there was a clear winner in the August primary, that winner would not be seated until November.
During the public comment period, Furnari took a seat at the table and briefly summarized why he’d been appointed, being the head of the ESE advisory committee, and why he would not get to serve. He was not critical of Conklin as he had been over the weekend, but he told the panel that as a consequence of his exclusion, which left no exceptional student advocate on the panel, his advisory committee would be meeting once or twice in the next days to draw up its own short list of candidates it would like to see forwarded to the school board. Furnari said that short list will be sent to the advisory panel, with hopes that it would be considered. Several panelists asked for Furnari’s contact information.
With all the concerns about conflicts, appointments and exclusions, Hunter Perez, one of two student school board members appointed to the advisory committee and a senior at Matanzas High School, raised a concern about his own status, being a student at the school where Jeff Reaves is the principal. Reaves is one of the applicants for superintendent.
“We’re not worrying about that,” Gavin said. “Hunter, please know, your being selected was completely based on your qualifications and what you have done at Matanzas high school.” She was referring to Reaves’s selection of Perez as a student school board member, a selection that Gavin said predates Reaves’s decision to apply for superintendent. Reaves did not appoint him to the advisory panel. Gavin later explained that many members of the panel have potential relationships, present or past, with some of the applicants, who, aside from Conklin and Reaves, include a former high district administrator (Vernon Orndorff), a former teacher and administrator (Tenille Wallace), and a current top administrator (Earl Johnson).
There was yet another Conklin-related revelation at Tuesday’s meeting: Gavin said Trevor Tucker, the school board member, had asked for an Attorney General opinion on Conklin’s decision: “Board member Trevor Tucker on Friday notified myself and Superintendent Tager that he was also requesting an Attorney general opinion on whether or not it is appropriate for her to be a candidate and continue to serve as a board member.”
Wednesday morning, Tucker said Conklin’s decision to step away from the board “makes getting AG opinion mostly moot.” But many of the questions he raised in his letter to the attorney general remain unanswered.
For all the discussions triggered by Conklin’s choice, none revealed panelists’ leanings–with one exception: Jearlyn Dennie, a parent and a member of three school advisory boards, among many involvements in the district and beyond it, is known for being outspoken, at times brutally so. So she was Tuesday evening when she questioned what Conklin had announced earlier in the day–that while she’d be away from the board, she’d donate her $3,000 to $4,000 in expected earnings from her board salary to the Flagler County Education Foundation, the district’s non-profit arm (some of whose board members, past and present, were around the advisory board’s table).
“Is it appropriate for Dr. Conklin to donate her salary to the education foundation?” Dennie asked.
“It’s very appropriate for her to donate her salary. It’s her choice,” Gavin said, explaining that if board members reject the salary, it goes back to the state. “So I’ve always recommended to a board member that wants to do that, if you don;t want to take that full salary,l if you want to still take a lower amount, that’s fine. You accept the salary you receive and then go ahead and donate whatever amount you don’t want to where you want to.”
“I respect that. But she is applying to be the superintendent of schools, so here’s my bribe, I’ll give my income during this transition phase while they’re deciding if it’s me, to the education foundation.”
“It’s up to all of us really to see if it’s appropriate or not,” another panelist said.
Gavin seemed flustered, as did a few other people around the table.
“You may not have an issue with it,” Dennie continued, “but perception is there, perception is reality, so, I’m applying for a job, here, take my money while you’re deciding if it’s me.” Asked after the meeting about her charge, Dennie said Conklin could have donated her money to a homeless shelter or a shelter for abused women, rather than an organization affiliated with the district, in a way that publicizes her commitment to education.
When told of Dennie’s “bribe” comment, Conklin wrote in an email: “I honestly don’t even know how to respond to this. I’m attempting the best I can to approach this situation with integrity. The Ed Foundation provides scholarships to our teachers and students. I thought that would be a wise use of my salary. However, if the committee members view this as an additional conflict I’m happy to donate those funds elsewhere. However, it seems no matter what I do some people are just never going to be happy.”
Gavin also in strong terms warned panelists to abide by open-meeting and public record laws, and to avoid speaking with each other outside of the few meetings they will have together. Those meetings will not stretch beyond two or three. The discussion was more prosaic when Reichert, the Florida School Board Association consultant, took over as he gave the panelists their homework for their next meeting, on Feb. 11. He said the group’s work could be done by then, if it agrees on a list of 10 to 12 names to forward to the board. If not,a third meeting would be held on Feb. 18. The school board will hold a special meeting on Feb. 25 to draw up its own short list of finalists–individuals who’ll be called in for interviews.
School Board member Janet McDonald had given the panelists a cheery welcome at the start of the meeting–“I’m going to celebrate each of us that’s here”–and said she would have appointed each one of the participants, before turning the meeting over to Gavin. McDonald did not stay, nor were any other school board members present, so as to ensure the panel’s autonomy.
Flagler County School Superintendent Candidates, 2020
|Candidate Number(*)||The Candidates||Location||Last Position|
|10||Wayne Alexander||Old Lyme, Conn.||Assistant Principal|
|27||Jeffrey Alstadt||Crescent City, Ill.||District Administrator, Randall School District, Wis. (K-8)|
|8||Raymond L. Bryant, Jr.||Locust Grove, Ga.||Consultant|
|23||Sean Chance||Pembroke Pines, Fla.||Administrator, Pembroke Pines Charter Schools|
|12||George J. Chidiac [Withdrew]||Bayville, N.J.||Superintendent (2,000 students)|
|30||Peri-Anne Chobot||Elkridge, Md.||Prep School Principal|
|29||Colleen Conklin||Flagler Beach||Flagler County School Board member, Executive Director of Embry-Riddle Gaetz Aerospace Institute|
|28||Kim Eger||Peoria, Ariz.||Education Superintendent for Arizona Juvenile Corrections|
|24||Curtis Ellis||Palm Coast||Principal, Putnam Academy of Arts and Science|
|4||Andrei E. Ghelman||Naples, Fla.||Adjunct Professor, FGCU|
|21||Terence N. Hayes||Madisonville, Ky.||Retired Superintendent|
|15||Eric T. Jackson||Sarasota, Fla.||High School Principal|
|13||Earl Johnson||Palm Coast||Leadership and Operations Director, Flagler Schools|
|5||Matthew T. Liberatore||Chicago||Director of Professional Learning and Student Services|
|31||Matthew Lutz||Kill Devil Hills, N.C.||Assistant Superintendent (4,300 students)|
|32||Erin McMahon [Withdrew]||East Falmouth, Mass.||Adjunct Professor|
|14||Cathy Mittelstadt||Palm Coast||Deputy Superintendent, St. Johns County Schools|
|16||Carl E. Moore||New Smyrna Beach||Chemistry, AP Teacher, Father Lopez High School|
|3||Terry L. Nelson [Withdrew]||Sparta, Ga.||Former Administrator|
|18||Yaw L. Obeng||Burlington, Vt.||Superintendent (4,000 students)|
|2||Vernon R. Orndorff||Waxahachie, Texas||Superintendent, Milford District (200 students)|
|1||Anthony D. Pack||Warner Robins, Ga.||Regional Education Administrator|
|33||Nigel Pillay||St. Augustine||Elementary School Principal|
|19||Michael G. Raso||Davenport, Iowa||Superintendent (5,000 students)|
|22||Jeff Reaves||Edgewater, Fla.||Principal, Matanzas High School|
|35||Randy Shearouse||Springfield, Ga.||Superintendent (12,000 students)|
|9||David M. Schmittou||Grand Blanc, Mich.||District Curriculum Director|
|7||Eric T. Stair||loomsburg, Pa.||High School Principal|
|20||Bruce Thomas||Akron, Ohio||Superintendent of 3 Charter Schools (580 students)|
|17||Nicolas Dusan Wade||Bolingbrook, Ill.||Superintendent (3,000 students)|
|6||Ron Wagner||Brooklyn Park, Minn.||Associate Superintendent|
|34||Tenille Wallace||Flagler Beach||Elementary School Principal|
|11||Jeff Williamson||Show Low, Ariz.||Superintendent, Bureau of Indian Education|
|25||Michael Winters||Sun City, Ariz.||District Administrator, Madison District Schools (6,000 students)|
|26||Janet Womack||Prosper, Texas||Consultant|
(*) The school board assigned a candidate number to each applicant to facilitate the selection process and blindly determine the order of interviews when that time comes.