The Flagler County School Board this afternoon chose Cathy Mittelstadt, the assistant school superintendent in St. Johns County, to be the district’s next superintendent, starting July 1 in place of Jim Tager, who will end a three-year tenure.
The 3-1 vote passed on the strength of arguments by School Board members Maria Barbosa and Andy Dance, passing over internal candidate Earl Johnson and previous district administrator Vern Orndorff. Ultimately, most board members found Johnson’s candidacy potentially lacking in bridge-building, if not divisive, and Orndorff’s past with the district not enough to catapult him to a breakthrough.
The combination of intensity, seriousness, experience, a focus on students and dignity and a long-time connection to Flagler as a resident–and no baggage with the district or any single constituency–proved the deciding factors for Mittelstadt.
“Outstanding. Wow. Fantastic,” Mittelstadt said during a brief phone call from the board to her, during a recess, to extend her the offer. “I’m completely honored. Absolutely, a true, true honor. Thank you so much for the opportunity.”
After a nearly one-hour preface and discussion about the four finalists, Dance moved to offer the job to Mittelstadt. Barbosa, after quite a pause, seconded, though her scoresheet had Mittelstadt clearly ahead of the three other candidates. And Trevor Tucker provided the third vote, though he’d have been happy with either Orndorff or Mittelstadt, he said later. School Board Chairman Janet McDonald dissented.
“The genesis” for his motion, Dance said, referred to his comments about building bridges and what he had said earlier in the meeting were his concerns about Orndorff and Johnson–the way the two candidates had seemed to cleave the community between two camps in a zero-sum game: Orndorff supporters didn’t want Johnson, and Johnson supporters didn’t want Orndorff, though partisanship for Johnson was clearly more pronounced, especially among black residents (Johnson is black), than for Orndorff, whose constiutuency was strongest among faculty and employees. Nevertheless, the divide affected both candidates in the end.
Three years ago Dance and Tucker had attempted to hire Orndorff to succeed Jacob Oliva as superintendent. They failed to get a third vote. Dance was not going to be beholden–either to his 2017 vote or to Orndorff. “At this stage in the district, things are different from three years ago, and it’d be real easy to fall back where I was three years ago,” Dance said, “but for the benefit of the district my personal choice is that’s how we should go.” Dance is in his last months as a board member: he is running for county commission. He had staked out a history on the board as an independent thinker, a reputation he clearly did not want to tarnish with his vote today.
Orndorff “was the best choice” to him three years ago, Dance said. “But that was three years ago. The district’s changed. The most important change is that we have competition this time, so we have the chance to compare and contrast.” Orndorff’s integrity and character have not changed, Dance said. He said all four candidates are very talented, but his “one wondering” was “the unfortunate aspect that the district is kind of taking sides,” he said, regarding Orndorff and Johnson. He described how in his view Johnson partisans were sharply opposed to Orndorff, and vice versa. Dance worried about how the district would “heal” from that. Mittelstadt rose above the fray.
“She is a strong candidate, she is a good fit for Flagler County, I know a lot of people who will be very pleased to have her also,” Barbosa said, after presenting lengthier analyses of each candidate than any of the other board members.
McDonald, however, wasn’t sure that “an outsider” would be able to keep the district going in the direction it’s been going. She appeared to have favored Orndorff.
After a somewhat indecorous start, when McDonald announced it was time to look for a Tager replacement more than a year before the end of his term, shocking even Tager, it was under McDonald’s chairmanship that the selection process led to what many people involved in it said was the most inclusive of the last three such searches, and one yielding the strongest final four candidates. Ironically for McDonald, she ended up being a dissenter on the choice, but only briefly.
Just before the board members huddled in an office during a recess, when McDonald called Mittelstadt to announce the decision and offer her the job, the board voted 4-0 to formalize the offer on the record and offer Mittelstadt the job: McDonald is letting that second vote’s unanimity speak for the board’s ultimate voice, and it was that 4-0 vote that was referred to in a district news release announcing the decision. (The board also voted 4-0 to authorize the board attorney to enter into negotiations with Mittelstadt.) The earlier 3-1 vote was not mentioned in the district’s release.
Board member Colleen Conklin would have made it 5-0 (or 4-1 in the earlier vote): contacted soon after the votes, she said she’d have supported Mittelstadt. She was not speaking after the fact: in private conversations when the finalists were announced, Conklin had said the same thing. “If they weigh Cathy and Vernon’s experience, plans, attitude and aptitude against each other,” Conklin wrote in an off-the-record text to FlaglerLive on Friday evening, “she comes out head and shoulders above him.” By then it was clearly a two-person race. Conklin agreed today to let the comment be placed on the record. (Conklin did not take part in the selection process after herself applying for the position. She did not make the final four cut.)
The board’s motion to go with Mittelstadt was a voice vote that followed a long segment when each board member summed up his or her thoughts on each of the four candidates in turn–Orndorff, Johnson, Mittelstadt and Janet Womack. Along the way, each board member explained what he or she found to be strengths and “wonderings,” a gentler way of speaking of problems with each candidate.
McDonald had scripted the afternoon meeting–or adopted the Florida School Board Association’s script for such meetings–reviewing the brief history of the selection process and outlining the way “today’s deliberations,” as she termed them, would go, down to the wording of the motion she’d ask for, with the name of the superintendent desired left blank. “We’ll continue until a vote passes and we’ve identified a Superintendent,” the outline read, with sample motion after motion added in case the board did not reach majority vote on any one choice. The multiple votes proved unnecessary.
The contract is expected to be negotiated and signed by board’s March 17 meeting, when Conklin will rejoin the board. Beyond that, Mittelstadt will work closely with Tager on the transition, as the school board intended when it designed a search to be completed and settled before the first day of spring.
“I didn’t get to meet you throughout the interview process,” Tager told Mittelstadt during the board’s phone call, “but I heard so many good things and I wanted to let you know, I’ll do whatever I can to help you with your transition, so I’ll give you a call later on and we’ll get together soon.” He added: “It’s a great , great place to work and I’m proud of you and I look forward to working with you.”
“I appreciate the board and all your confidence in my ability moving forward,” Mittelstadt said. “I have much thoughts on things and places to go, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to serve.”
“And we are too,” McDonald said, already and graciously well past any doubt that she would be lending the new superintendent her full support, “and you have a band of folks out there championing you already and I’m sure they’re ready, willing and able to work with you.”
“The motion that was made was to offer you the job and allow the chairman and the school board attorney to enter into negotiations,” Andrea Messina, one of the three consultants from the Florida School Board Association shepherding the selection process for the board, told Mittelstadt. At that point, the board had merely recessed from its meeting to make the call, though it likely should not have done so, as a board, in a separate office, away from the audience. (“I was not involved in that decision to bring them all in,” Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, said.)
When the meeting resumed at 2:25 p.m., McDonald spoke of the call and described Mittelstadt’s excitement before Gavin submitted the contract that’ll be the starting point of negotiations.
The first word that had occurred to Dance after his one-on-one interview with Mittelstadt was “intense,” which left him “captivated and listening intently,” he said. He had looked at each candidate’s adherence to a strategic process (that is, goal-setting and following through) and the candidates’ thoughts on carrying through a half-penny tax initiative. Those two areas impressed Dance most, along with the fact that “she has experience in turning around schools.” She was also very supportive of teachers. “I wonder that the St. Johns way translates to the Flagler way. It’s an interesting idea to learn from the Number One district,” he said. (St. Johns County has consistently boasted of having the best district in the state.) “But does it translate. I don’t know.” He said her learning curve would be mitigated since she lives in Flagler County. Unlike Tucker, he’s not concerned about what Mittelstadt would bring regarding growth initiatives, and his phone calls to St. Johns contacts showed another strength: she relates well with others.
Tucker said she could be “a great leader” who answered all her questions directly–her biggest strength in his eyes, but also a potential liability, if people are not comfortable with her directness. He was also concerned about her coming in to “tear down our construction framework,” since she comes from a high-growth district on course to build a school a year.
Barbosa found her compassionate, straight-forward, to the point, always keeping eye contact, and found her to be well thought-out regarding leadership, discipline and safety while establishing a “caring environment.” She found her listening skill to be very strong. But she was concerned about the half-penny sales tax the district will be going after again in 2022. She said St. Johns has a similar tax, but for different purposes. “She’s a strong personality,” she said, but during her one-on-one interview, “she is able to control herself to connect with another person who is a little softer–I’m a little softer side.”
Clearly aware that she had to make the case for Mittelstadt over Johnson, Barbosa said Johnson “changed the culture at Matanzas High School and I am really grateful for that,” but she had a couple of concerns about the difference between the enthusiasm he generated while principal compared to some of the issues he generated regarding his relationship with the Exceptional Student Education, or ESE, community. Johnson pledged to her that he would try to correct that problem. Another concern was revelations from a public survey, which she did not specify (though last week the public reaction to Johnson also included displeasure about interactions and the “climate” of intimidation employees worked under.)
Dance echoed Barbosa, saying that Johnson as principal “seems to be where he is the strongest,” while as an administrator, “he is on the shortest end as far as the four candidates.” As for Johnson’s ambitious plans to go with an all-day VPK and improve special education staffing, “it seems to come a little bit too late,” a suggestion that Johnson was pulling out the proposal as more of a campaign promise than as a long-planned initiative. “But I have enjoyed working with Mr. Johnson in his capacity and do appreciate the work that he’s done with the district so far,” Dance finally said, essentially ending Johnson’s candidacy–especially when McDonald said she would be “redundant” if she were to repeat much of what Dance had said.
McDonald also specified that she was concerned about Johnson’s communications skills, especially his response to the ESE parent council–“threaten legal action instead of communicate with people directly,” McDonald said. (The county’s ESE parent advisory group had been very critical of Johnson’s candidacy. Johnson responded with a cease and desist letter, a decision that unquestionably backfired on his campaign to be superintendent.)
McDonald said Mittelstadt is known to have been an excellent coach, “business-like,” growth-oriented. But, McDonald said, Mittelstadt’s experience has been on the operations side of her district. “My wondering is translating over into our main issues with curriculum and with the delivery of information and process, and that strategic plan and where our emphasis should be,” she said.
The three other candidates had also been discussed at length.
To Tucker, as he spoke earlier in the meeting, Orndorff had the support of teacher and staff, had history in the district, and could be a “very quality candidate” for the district. Barbosa spoke highly of Orndorff, saying that while he may have lacked some experience three years ago, he has now filled that gap. She spoke of his familiarity with the district and his understanding of its many initiatives. She liked his use of such words as “honesty” and “passion”–words most candidates used–but “when he said service with a heart, he [caught] my attention,” she said. On Exceptional Student Education issues, “he had a little gap in that area but he will do his best to close that gap.” She cautioned him about having his past history in the district influence his hiring practices: Barbosa doesn’t want to see favoritism at play.
McDonald cited a very supportive letter from ex-Superintendent Jacob Oliva about Orndorff, and of her conversation with an official in Texas, at Orndorff’s current district–which has been low-performing–who told her that the district had made important strides in ways that did not necessarily get reflected on paper. “In his mild and respectful way, he walks that walk, all the time,” McDonald said.
Janet Womack proved to inspire the board members the least. Tucker said her lack of Florida experience was a concern, while her “style” would generate conflict, at least between her and him: Womack has a particularly effusive, voluble personality.
Barbosa said Womack spoke of the right things and was “driven by data and facts,” she had self-confidence, was professional, is hands-on, transparent, accessible, honest. Barbosa said Womack did a lot of homework, and is familiar with a diverse district, though Womack’s was a little more than a third the size of Flagler’s. Barbosa said Womack left her wondering about her familiarity with the state budget, but would be a quick learner. “It was very joyful to talk to her,” she said. But because she’s not from Florida, and because she’s not as knowledgeable with the Florida financial system, she could not rank her higher than the others. Those issues aside, she would be higher ranked.
Dance had been impressed with Womack on paper, and said she appeared to have studied Florida and Flagler enough to get over that knowledge gap. But he worried about her being “the right fit for Flagler. Mr. Tucker had a similar concern.” Dance said he prefers more concise individuals. McDonald spoke in similar terms about Womack. “We appreciated her coming,” she said, complimenting her ability to create relationships. But “how long would it take to get to know the district” and make it work without the sort of funding system Womack had in place in Alabama. “I wouldn’t want to waste any time since we would like to continue to grow in that way.”
“We had four exceptional candidates. Made for a very difficult decision,” McDonald said.
At the end of the meeting Dance said he nevertheless had “a heavy heart” because of the decision’s effects on Orndorff and Johnson, whom he did not cite by name but alluded to. Still, he said, “I’m excited for the path of the district, and will console the others.”