On Wednesday, Jim Tager, our school superintendent for the last three years, tweeted these few lines: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” The quote is from the final pages of “Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. Tager had always kept a Mandela quote in his office, though if you have a look at his twitter feed it’s essentially 6,700 variations on that theme. You will not see a single note of negativity.
Compare that to the stuff you found on School Board Chairman Janet McDonald’s twitter feed, where protesters are called terrorists, where one of our own congressmen, surely not ignorant of lynching’s history, calls for demonstrators to be hunted down, where Black Lives Matter is derided without a tweet of empathy, where schools brainwash, where public health officials are quacks, where liberals and the press are only good for insults, where lies about brick-throwers and George Soros are recirculated and misinformation is masked–if anything is ever masked–in the pilfered language of skepticism. A rare retweet here and there quoting the odd inspirational words aside, McDonald’s feed is a lament scroll of ideological resentments and Savage victimhood, more “American carnage” than America singing.
Two radically different perspectives from the two most powerful people in the Flagler County school district.
The strange thing is that in person McDonald is one of the most engaging, sunny personalities you’ll meet on our local political circuit. She’s gracious, she’s more publicly engaged than most, she cheerleads students and staff, she responds to press inquiries, she’s never vulgar or abrasive or personal–at least not publicly, the way some of our more incendiary politicos who shoot up the same ideological venom try to be.
But why this rancid discordance between her public self and her not-so public self? You can say all you want that McDonald’s twitter feed is her own and that she has every right to express her thoughts or retweet those of others. Of course she does. You can even say, as McDonald tried to, that some of the retweets were not hers, could not possibly have been hers, though she didn’t exactly remove them even days after she was flooded with calls or texts about them, nor, by any means, distance herself from the majority of what she acknowledged tweeting or retweeting. She said she’d take down her whole page only after a FlaglerLive story exposed them all, and after sounding incensed that it had to go so far, “as though”–to borrow the line from Edith Wharton–“words meant to be murmured to sympathetic friends were being megaphoned into the ears of a heedless universe.” But what the hell did she expect, in this day, in this time, through these belated reckonings with a climate of hate unpardonably normalized to the rhythm of tweets from the president on down? (In fact, she did not take down the page. It’s still there, locked from view except to those she admits.)
Tweets are character. You can’t hide behind the conceit of social media being a different universe, somehow segregated and unrelated to one’s public persona as an elected official. You may try. But no one’ll buy it. No one should. You are what you tweet.
In this case, the difference between Tager’s and McDonald’s twitter feed was not simply an exercise in divergent opinions. The differences in ostensibly personal social media platforms were the writing on the wall. Those differences are the reason we lost Tager. This was his last week in the district. It didn’t have to be. But McDonald set his departure in motion more than a year ago, when she stunned his colleagues and many of us with her announcement that it was time to look for a replacement. Clearly, her philosophy did not align with his. She wanted him out and she got him out.
Of course Tager was technically term-limited to three years, having to retire through the Florida Retirement System in June. But that could have been dealt with. He could have sat out six months–cleanly and inexpensively, not sneakily and exorbitantly, the way a recent county assistant administrator did–and returned for a few more years. The board could have easily made it happen. Tager certainly had a majority and the record to make it happen. He brought the district back to an A for the first time in seven years. The graduation rate surged. He kept schools safe and never lost sight of them as a sanctuary. After the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and the murder of one of his students off campus he navigated the district through some of its most anxious times. He cultivated an excellent working relationship with the sheriff, with whom he ensured that schools would remain secure without becoming armed camps or prey to state-sanctioned vigilantism. It was another example of what he called the “human touch” in a recent video on his twitter feed. He understood the equal dignity and respect owed students, whatever their color and, more recently, their gender orientation. An unquestionably spiritual man, he was not big on public ostentation and knew his Matthew. His self-assurance never transgressed an equal ease with humility. He did not pose or pander. Or cower. Maybe that’s why McDonald wanted him out.
McDonald could have been isolated. But the board members didn’t step up. They let McDonald turn into a school board of one. And the most complete superintendent this district has had since Bill Delbrugge is gone.
This isn’t to doubt the qualities of Cathy Mittelstadt, who was clearly the most qualified of the applicants for superintendent. The board redeemed itself a good distance with that decision–which McDonald did not initially support. McDonald welcomed her in typical McDonald style, with a bunch of smiley-faced roses in one hand and a Damocles sword in the other. It’s the sort of welcome that sends a message: deal and stay. Deal not, you’re gone. McDonald can take the board’s silence on Tager’s account as precedent, an unsettling precedent, though Mittelstadt’s backbone doesn’t strike me as any less doric than Tager’s.
Still, I feel like the kids in “Dead Poets Society,” standing up on their desks and yelling “Captain my Captain” to Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating after he’s been railroaded out of Welton Academy–ironically set in Vermont, where Tager is heading. If only the four other board members had stood on their desks. He might have stayed. But he knew the score. Flagler County is more Ted Nugent than Walt Whitman these days, leaving us to hope that “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” That’s in the same Mandela paragraph from where Tager took his twitter quote, as Mandela goes on to describe the glimmers of humanity he’d occasionally see even in his prison guards. Maybe the school board can slip that thought into its next unsilent moment of silence.