The Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council, a group of volunteers recognized but not sanctioned by the Flagler County School Board, on Friday issued its own recommendations for superintendent–a list of six candidates, none of them local, while pointedly excluding or sharply criticizing four of the local candidates who’d made a different short list.
The ESE advisory committee known as EPAC is distinctly different from the school board-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee, which completed its work last week and submitted nine recommendations. EPAC’s chairman, Stephen Furnari, at one point had been a member of the citizens’ advisory committee, but was one of four appointees removed after School Board member Colleen Conklin announced her candidacy for the superintendent job. She had appointed Furnari and the three others. The board attorney removed the four appointees to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The school board is approaching the culmination of the superintendent search to replace Jim Tager, whose contract expires at the end of June and who’s already landed a job in Vermont after that. After two meetings, only one of which included substantive discussion about the candidates, the board’s committee last week submitted a non-binding list of nine candidates: Vernon Orndorff, Cathy Mittelstadt, Earl Johnson, Colleen Conklin and Janet Womack, all of whom cleared the 50 percent threshold in votes from committee members, and Ron Wagner, Eric Jackson, Jeff Reaves (the principal at Matanzas High School), and Matthew Lutz.
Only three names on EPAC’s list matched that of the board’s committee: Mittelstadt, Womack and Wagner. EPAC also included three names that got some votes from the board-appointed panel but didn’t make its list: Anthony Pack (three votes from the board’s committee), Raymond Bryant (six votes) and Wayne Alexander (three votes).
In contrast with the board committee’s choices, which were made verbally at a meeting last week, with no written documentation in the record and only a few comments by committee members, several of whom took turns speaking about their findings, EPAC’s 24-page report provides a more documented outline of the committee’s rationales, explaining its recommendations.
But it goes in a strikingly unexpected direction, too, by not only presenting its recommendations, but by singling out six candidates it “eliminated,” leveling very critical comments at several of them along the way. The criticism of the candidates reflects some of the disenchantment Furnari spoke and wrote of when referring to the school board’s advisory committee’s work, which he found to have been too hurried and haphazard.
The criticism is echoed at length in the report: “EPAC has significant concerns about the efficacy of the Committee’s selection process
and how much weight the School Board should allocate to its recommendations,” the report states, going on to list 10 bullet points of “challenges” with the process. One of the points again stressed what EPAC considers to be disproportionate attention on local candidates: “Committee members overwhelmingly preferred ‘local’ candidates, choosing them based on name familiarity or personal relationship, dismissing more qualified candidates from outside the Flagler/Volusia/St. Johns area and, in some cases, ignoring the Committee’s own professional guidelines.”
EPAC’s involvement in the recommendation process (the report states each candidate was the subject of four hours of research), however from a sideline, also drew criticism from Florida School Board Association consultants helping the school board through the selection process. One of the consultants sought to cast doubt on EPAC’s involvement when he emailed the candidates, asking them to think about whether they should participate in EPAC’s questionnaire. That may have further soured EPAC’s respect for the board’s process, which had projected itself to be transparent and inclusive from the start.
But The decision to go further than presenting recommendations and to single out candidates and the other committee for criticism casts EPAC’s approach not only as a separate or complementary set of recommendations, but as an openly competing set, and one candidly derogatory of its alternative. The approach could backfire on EPAC, undermining its case for the candidates it did recommend.
The EPAC report makes clear that its “ideal candidate” has a background in exceptional student education and “direct experience with students with disabilities,” answered EPAC’s questions “in a meaningful way” and welcomes engagement with advocacy groups, among other expectations. EPAC found three of the candidates the board’s committee recommended–Conklin, Jackson and Reaves– to lack its “professional criteria,” meaning previous experience as a superintendent and district-level administrative experience at a district with an enrollment larger than 2,000 students.
Only Janet McDonald, the school board chairman, and board member Maria Barbosa acknowledged receipt of the EPAC report, as of 1 p.m. Monday, Furnari said. The board on Feb. 25 meets in special session to debate and identify the list of candidates it will invite for an interview. Those interview stake place on March 4 and 5, with closed-door interviews on March 6. A community reception for the finalists is scheduled for March 5. The board selects its new superintendent on March 10.
The full report appears below or may be downloaded here.