Combining local and non-local applicants, the Flagler County School Board will interview four candidates for superintendent: Kathy Mittelstadt, Vernon Orndorff, Earl Johnson and Janet Womack. (See how each board member voted in the chart below.)
The short-listing eliminated School Board member Colleen Conklin, who got only one vote for an interview from a board member (Maria Barbosa picked her). Jeff Reaves, the principal at Matanzas High School and another internal candidate, got no votes.
Orndorff, the district’s former director of leadership development and briefly an applicant for superintendent three years ago, before he left for a superintendent post in Texas, got all four board members’ votes for an interview, as did Mittelstadt, an assistant superintendent in St. Johns County, the state’s highest-performing school district.
Johnson, who filled Orndorff’s position three years ago, under Superintendent Jim Tager, got three votes, as did Womack, an education consultant with vast experience in district and administrative leadership.
Board members decided to stick with the top four choices for interviews in two weeks.
“I’m good with the four that we’ve got,” board member Andy Dance said. Board members Trevor Tucker and Janet McDonald, the chairman, agreed. Barbosa had unsuccessfully pushed for a fifth candidate.
The brief special meeting of the school board this morning began with a public comment period dominated by members of the black community implicitly or explicitly pushing for Johnson, and implicitly pushing back against a very critical assessment of Johnson by a citizens’ advisory group.
There was a divide in the audience of 19: Stephen Furnari, who chairs the Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council (EPAC), sat off to the side, separate from the rest of the audience: he and his group had provided the critical assessment of Johnson, among other candidates.
John Winston, a long-time volunteer and mentor in the district, and no stranger to hyperbole, spoke of “forces of evil” attacking the nation and the community, describing himself “appalled, aggravated, irritated and disillusioned concerning how far this menace has spread.” He never quite clarified what he was referring to, then spoke of “unfounded assertions, accusations and lies are concocted to win, irregardless of the impact upon the children we are here to serve,” but tied his comments to the selection process. It was veiled criticism of an advisory group’s assessment that Johnson–who is black–is not qualified to be superintendent.
Winston was followed by five other supporters of Johnson. Then Furnari spoke.
Speaking to the board, Furnari revealed that Johnson hired a lawyer and issued a cease and desist letter to Furnari and EPAC charging that the committee had “blatantly presented falsehoods within the public square that you know to be false or should have known to be false as it relates to Dr. Johnson” and his supervisory relationship (or lack thereof, in the attorney’s interpretation) of Terence Culver, the former principal at Belle Terre Elementary School. Culver was forced to resign late last year after revelations of financial irregularities at Belle Terre, involving the school’s Parent Teacher Organization’s account. EPAC charged that Johnson’s role in that case was a disqualifier. His attorney wrote that Johnson had not been in that role.
“While that candidate may disagree with the statements made,” Furnari told the board in a brief statement, without naming Johnson, “the candidate had a choice. He could have reached out to this community advocacy group, requested an audience, and discussed with us why EPAC was wrong about our position. He can still do that. Instead the candidate chose to hire a lawyer and threaten to sue community members into silence. And I ask you: with a position as public as the superintendent position, a position subject to routine criticism of community members, do we want or need a candidate whose instinct is to hire a lawyer and to sue parents and children with disabilities into silence, or do we want someone with fortitude to reach out and have a conversation.”
There were two citizens’ advisory committees at play in the selection process: the board’s own, with a group of 20 appointees, and EPAC, which decided to conduct its own review of the candidates once Furnari was, along with three other members of the board’s panel, booted off that panel because they had been appointed by Conklin, before her decision to become a candidate. The district, in an effort to avoid any appearance of conflict, chose to remove the four Conklin appointees. EPAC’s review criticized what it deemed the other committee’s hurried process, and singled out several of the other committee’s short-listed candidates for criticism, among them Johnson.
“We are going to need a bridge builder,” Dance said, introducing the board members’ discussion before the actual votes Dance. “This is just one step, the next step will be a lot more enlightening.”
The interviews are scheduled for March 5 in open session before the board, and March 6 in one-on-one sessions between candidates and individual board members. The evening of March 5, the candidates will be available for a community meet and greet from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Buddy Taylor Middle School cafeteria.
Our colleague didn’t move forward, Dance said of Conklin, explaining that his “weight” in his choices was “heavily on administration” and administrative leadership. He said he gave Conklin credit for “stepping out of that comfort zone and putting her name in,” but stressed that the district needed a leader with previous superintendent experience, or experience at those higher levels. He said he looked forward to having Conklin back on the board.
“With so many strong candidates, we have the luxury of choosing people who have been superintendents,” McDonald said.
Within moments of the decision, Conklin posted on her Facebook page: “Very proud of the community and my colleagues on the School Board. This was a very unique and unknown process. The top four candidates that have been selected by the Board for final interviews are top quality candidates for consideration and will serve our district well.” After listing the survivors, she wrote: “Thank you for all your well wishes. I have no regrets and I’m grateful for the experience. I have no doubt the best candidate will be selected to lead the district. Thanks again.”
|Vernon R. Orndorff|