When Flagler County Superintendent Jim Tager–the first superintendent to return the district to an A rating in seven years–met with his principals Friday to announce that he’d been appointed superintendent in a district in Vermont, he wanted to reassure them that he was in it in Flagler through the end of his contract on June 30. Just as importantly, he wanted his principals to be just as focused and committed, without getting distracted by the politics and uncertainties of the ongoing search for his replacement.
“You need to forget about what’s going on with the search, you need to focus on your job and do the best you can do for your students,” Tager told the principals (one of whom is a candidate for superintendent). “I promise to do the same for you. So for me, it’s a relief to have it out in the open.”
The Franklin West Supervisory Union Board of Directors in northeast Vermont voted Tuesday night to hire Tager as superintendent for a 1,700-student rural district (actually, a group of three districts) just northeast of Burlington, where dairy cows out number residents and hills–green in summer, white and gray in winter–mantle the skyline. He starts July 1. He’d been one of two finalists. His competitor, Wendy Baker, is a Vermont resident and a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard, making him think he had no chance. But the board voted unanimously in his favor.
“I wasn’t ready to be done,” Tager said in an interview this morning, speaking of his energy and interest in leading another district, and of not wanting to be a distraction.
Community members met with Tager and Baker Tuesday evening then filled out a digital survey to share their impressions with the board. They had both toured the schools that day. Tager visited every classroom. It was his second trip to Vermont in recent weeks. (The first time he went with Jodi Tager, his wife and a legal assistant at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. She will be leaving that post at the end of June as well.)
The next day, without a lawyer, Tager signed a one-year contract. “So it’s a done deal,” he said. He said it’s the norm there, with the first-year contract serving as a try-out and subsequent contracts being two-year, revolving agreements.
During the interview process he was asked the obvious question: “Why would you leave Florida for this?”
“It’s about the people. Everywhere I’ve been in, it’s about the people,” he said. “I was able to meet everybody in the district, I have a good feel for this.” He was also asked how he would contend with the much smaller size of the district in Vermont. He’ll be in charge of three schools. “I almost see where I would start off my days at schools every single day,” he said. In Flagler, he devoted every Wednesday to being in the schools. “I’m excited about it, 1,700 students, I figure I can meet them all and probably know them all after the first year.”
Tager will be leading a district that has some similarities to Flagler: both are Apple-distinguished districts. But the differences are more pronounced. “Our Action Plan calls for a dramatic departure from the manner in which school has been provided for students over the last one hundred years,” Franklin’s mission statement reads. “It examines flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promotes learning experiences that extend beyond the school classroom, and fosters creativity, innovation, and differentiated learning opportunities for all.”
“The FWSU Board is pleased to welcome Jim to our supervisory union,” FWSU Board Chair Tara Sweet was quoted as saying in a district release. “The FWSU Board is pleased to welcome Jim to our supervisory union. His vision and collaboration skills make him a great fit to help move FWSU forward with our belief in what is possible and in continuing to provide the best possible education for all students within FWSU.”
An interim, Donald Van Nostrand, had been superintendent in the district Tager is taking over, following the untimely death of the previous superintendent, Ned Kirsch, from heart complications days after visiting family in Florida last April.
The Flagler County School Board hired Tager three years ago to replace Jacob Oliva, knowing that Tager’s time in Flagler was limited: he is part of the state retirement system’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which requires him to retire from any Florida Retirement System-tied employment for at least six months starting on July 1. School Board Chairman Janet McDonald jump-started the process of finding his replacement–startling Tager and other board members along the way–when she announced at a meeting last June, more than a year before the end of his term, that it was time to start the replacement process.
For a while Tager had considered the possibility of taking a six-month leave and returning as superintendent after the required sitting-out period to satisfy FRS rules. At least two board members wanted him to do just that. But after some reflection, Tager, who prizes unanimity when it comes to the support of a superintendent (he had been especially inquisitive about the vote in Vermont this week), did not want to return to a board that no longer gave him that sense of unanimity. So he announced his definite retirement. At least from Flagler.
The district is losing the superintendent who shepherded it to its first A since 2011, significantly improved the district’s graduation rate and, with a few notable exceptions, some of them caused more by the board than by the administration, steered the district clear of major scandals or black eyes. His style was distinguished by the sort of modesty that made him personally indifferent to the limelight or to chest-thumping confrontations, his attention more focused on the less glamorous side of administrative rigors and policy goals.
Tager said he was committing to at least five years in Vermont, while he and his wife will keep their house locally, where they have family and intend to spend time annually.
Meanwhile, he says there are no intentions to focus less on his duties locally. When he spoke to his principals Friday, Tager, an avid runner, gave them the analogy of a marathon. Speaking from personal experience at the Savannah marathon, he said he’d see all the people running a half-marathon cross the finish line at the 13.1-mile mark. “You’re tempted to veer off with them,” he said, rather than continue to finish the 26.2 miles of a full marathon. “Some of the kids are only going to have you for this year. I want them to have the best year of you,” he told the principals, urging them to go on through the rest of the year as he intends to.
The school board is expected to draw up its list of finalists for superintendent later this month and interview the candidates on March 4 and 5, announcing its decision on March 10. One candidate from Vermont had applied: the former superintendent of the Burlington school district. He did not make the shortlist of the board-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee, nor that of the ESE Parent Advisory Committee.