Last Updated: Friday, 10:13 a.m. with Jill Woolbright interview and McDonald’s third attempt for a special meeting.
In the 48 hours since one of the ugliest Flagler County School Board meetings in memory, School Board member Janet McDonald sought what would have been an unlawful a closed-door meeting in an apparent attempt to fire Board Attorney Kristy Gavin. She solicited all the district’s agreements with the county Health Department, a relationship she wants severed, though four other board members rejected going down that road. Two board members called McDonald’s moves a “witch hunt.” One of them call McDonald “a threat to the safety and well being of all the Flagler School Board members as well as a deterrent to our mission” and proposed that McDonald be censured.
There’s been an underlying rift at the school board going back to the latter part of former Superintendent Jim Tager’s tenure, when LGBT issues came to the fore. The rift was un-mended with the hiring of Cathy Mittelstadt, Tager’s successor–a hire McDonald opposed. The covid crisis at first papered over the rift, only to aggravate it as masking and covid-safety issues became more pronounced during the current surge especially. The rift exploded in full view Tuesday, like a fuse to the crowd’s own deep polarization and mutual hostilities. McDonald, always a covid-denier, seemed buoyed by a crowd largely and loudly sympathetic to a defiance she mirrored, and carried on in the next 48 hours as if powered by pious vigor to keep crusading.
Her colleagues’ reaction was blunt and swift. But the rift is far from over: McDonald is nether the conciliatory nor the consensus type, giving her slow-burn tenacity an unpredictable edge that always seems to mutate for another day. The last 48 hours, in other words, may be mere prelude to the next 20 months (McDonald is up for re-election in 2022).
It isn’t clear how McDonald, who has been on the school board for over six years, serving as its chair for two, was still not aware of the unlawful nature of her request for a closed meeting. It is not legal under Florida law to hold closed-door meetings to review any employee’s contract. The only exceptions for closed-door meetings are when the board discusses student disciplinary matters that fall under privacy laws, school security matters, and strategy discussions regarding pending litigation or ongoing union negotiations. One school board member alone may not call a meeting, either. Only the superintendent may call a special meeting, either at the superintendent’s own behest or on request from the board chair or a majority of the board.
“I have an attorney who is willing to serve as legal counsel for this one session,” McDonald had written just before 4 p.m. Wednesday when calling for the closed-door session. She did not name the “legal counsel” nor explain the counsel’s purpose. It would also be irregular, if not illegal, for one board member to bring an attorney other than the school board’s–a move echoing that pulled at canvassing board meetings by Kimberle Weeks, the former Flagler County Elections Supervisor convicted of numerous felonies stemming from her flouting of laws on the job.
Trevor Tucker, the even-tempered chairman of the school board–his distaste for frills and drama are in proportion to his deference to rules and process–sharply corrected McDonald on the illegality of the sort of closed-door meeting she was seeking. “Please do not respond to this email,” he noted in his reply.
McDonald wasn’t done. Stirred by a four-page “open letter to the board” by Grit Ellis, the Realtor and girlfriend of Alan Lowe–the two-time losing and incendiary candidate for Palm Coast mayor, and who was at Tuesday’s school board meeting–then pursued “by whatever means,” in her words, any kind of board meeting, “a retreat, or whatever you call it,” to discuss the nature of Tuesday’s meeting. McDonald didn’t elaborate on the meeting’s purpose in her email to the attorney. But she did so in an obsequious email to Ellis, agreeing with the Realtor’s assessments and calling them “a very detailed guide that I trust will help organize our reflections and correct our practices.”
Ellis had called for an investigation of Gavin’s role at the meeting, falsely accusing Gavin of “the creation of mayhem and chaos,” terms that more accurately describe the crowd’s behavior. Ellis also falsely claimed Gavin interrupted the meeting “without adherence to any rules,” among other mischaracterization: the rules Gavin enforced, including the ban on clapping, were promulgated during McDonald’s chairmanship of the board, in early 2020, largely at McDonald’s direction and in response to heated meetings over LGBTQ issues when, unlike on Tuesday, McDonald was not waving her hands in the air in support of LGBTQ students and their families. At a meeting last June McDonald, wielding those very rules, outright shut down a speaker who was being critical of her and stopped him from completing his remarks. (The full statement was later published here.)
Woolbright did not respond to any of the emails. She said Friday she had no issues either with Gavin or the district’s agreements with the Health Department, and wasn’t going to criticize either. “I don’t want to undermine the work of the district,” Woolbright said. “I’m not going to style my position and my authority to publicly question [the administration] if I can at all help it, there’s ways to do that. I just feel like I’m caught between two bickering school board members and I just wish they would stop.”
Tucker saw no need for any special meetings or workshops, and said in an interview he agreed with the way Gavin handled Tuesday’s meeting.
“Kristy is the parliamentarian or the sergeant at arms, that’s her designation as the school board attorney,” Tucker said. “With that, she has the right to act if decorum is not being maintained, that’s one of the sergeant at arms’ responsibilities.” Gavin’s role as parliamentarian is in her job description.
“Her job,” Board member Cheryl Massaro said of Gavin, “is to protect the district legally in all aspects as well as being the person to protect the school board, enact rules and regulations set by the school board, which that was her duty at that particular time.”
Late Thursday–31 minutes after this article published–McDonald was at it again, this time skirting close to, if not committing, a Sunshine law violation, by addressing Tucker directly in an email, despite Tucker’s admonition earlier not to respond. “I request a special meeting of the FCSB members to review board policies and procedures, following the deficiencies in procedures and policies that occurred on Tuesday 8/17/21,” she wrote, without explaining what the alleged deficiencies were. She wanted the meeting to “review duties of the attorney noted in attorney contract, due to expire in June 2022. I do have an attorney with more than 20 years of board and agency counsel experience to consult, pro bono, to monitor/guide the conversation if need be.” Tucker did not respond. There will be no meeting until the board meets again in a scheduled, open session, when McDonald can bring up her issue and see if she has a three-vote majority to call a workshop, Tucker said.
McDonald doesn’t have the votes.
Tucker has no issues with Gavin’s role as the board’s attorney, nor has Woolbright (“I have no issues with the attorney absolutely none, I have a great rel with the attorney,” Woolbright said Friday). The only other person authorized to call a workshop or a meeting is the superintendent. In this case, Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt deferred to Tucker. A “Master Board” retreat is scheduled in September, where board members are guided through best practices through a Florida School Board Association program. Tucker suggested some of McDonald’s issues with rules could be brought up then.
Within minutes of McDonald’s original call for the “executive session” Board member Colleen Conklin had immediately replied: “No–thank you. I will NOT be attending.” When McDonald persisted with the request of a meeting “by whatever means PLEASE,” as she put it in the subject lijne of an email that again went to all board members, it appears Conklin had had enough. “I will not be attending whatever we want to call this,” Conklin wrote Gavin early this morning in an email that also went to all board members. “I will not participate in any form or fashion of this witch hunt. I’m over the nonsense and the drama. I do NOT wish to receive any additional emails from Mrs. McDonald and request all communications go through you or the Superintendent.” (McDonald in the past has used her school board email account liberally to disseminate the sort of misinformation about covid and vaccines that, had it been disseminated by physician, could cost his or her medical license.)
Massaro closer to midday today, in an email limited to the superintendent and Gavin, wrote: “I will not entertain participation in any of Ms. McDonald’s witch hunts,” before listing McDonald’s various targets and objecting to her behavior at the meeting: “Not only did she totally ignore our Chair’s request to leave the meeting, but also ignored the direction of Law Enforcement! A safety issue response that put every individual in harm’s way, and should have never happened!”
In an interview about details of the evening not broadly known until now, Massaro said: “When law enforcement tells you to do something, you do it, because you’re not only risking your safety but that of everybody else in that room.” Some deputies were reportedly livid at the board members’ flouting their requests. “We had two school resource officers on duty. One of the SROs’ job is to keep the school board safe. When they had to clear the room, the first thing he did was, our chair had to delay the meeting, he told the chair to get all five board members into the back room immediately.” Tucker spoke to each board member in turn, Massaro recalled, and several administrators joined most of the board members in a back room. “We had no idea what was gonna happen,” Massaro continued. “Then we hear Ms. Woolbright on the loudspeaker trying to calm the group, and she came in [the back room] because they weren’t listening to her. Then Ms. McDonald started to do her little thing, trying to get people under control, and our SRO was telling her in no uncertain terms she needed to go in the back, because they needed to clear the room. That’s when it became dangerous, because she wasn’t listening.”
“I didn’t know that the police officers had asked us to leave the room, I was trying to help,” Woolbright said in an interview Friday morning. “I didn’t hear the direction from the police officer, and when I did, I left.”
Massaro contended that many in the audience, including some from out of town, were encouraged to attend by McDonald “for the sole purpose of disruption.” (There unquestionably was a social media campaign to draw anti-maskers and people responding to the mostly fabricated Indian Trails issue, but if McDonald had a role in it, there was no evidence of it in her public emails in the 72 hours leading to the meeting.) Massaro concluded: “I personally have determined that Ms. McDonald is a threat to the safety and well being of all the Flagler School Board members as well as a deterrent to our mission at hand to promote the safety, well being, and education of every Flagler County Child, and needs to be disciplined and even censured.”
McDonald had Gavin in her sights even before the evening meeting. The board on Tuesday had held a less eventful workshop at 1 p.m. At the end of the workshop, McDonald called for a workshop to examine Gavin’s evaluation process and have it focus on “where her time is spent.” She did not explain what had prompted the need for a review. No board member had deemed such a review necessary in the 11 years Gavin has been the district’s in-house counsel. “Just like any other attorney, they have billable hours, so where’s the time needed by the district. What’s taking her time, what’s our focus,” McDonald said, suggesting “outside counsel” for certain areas. Gavin already produces a bi-annual report on her department’s work, which may go to a quarterly report. When Tucker asked if anyone else was interested in a workshop on Gavin’s tasks, no one other than McDonald was. He moved on to other business and soon adjourned.
Then came the evening meeting.
Public comment took up most of the first 90 minutes of the four-hour meeting. Most of the comments were for or against the re-imposition of a mask mandate as a covid-safety procedure in schools. No such mandate exists, in compliance with the governor’s executive order. Or they were about the largely exaggerated or false characterizations of the way a student required to quarantine was treated at Indian Trails Middle School. A sizeable audience repeatedly flouted the no-clapping rule despite requests, then warnings, by Tucker (twice) and more pointedly by Gavin (several times), that the room would be cleared if clapping or incivility continued. It continued, though the final straw was not clapping.
“When I adjourned the meeting, Gavin said this evening, “it was not due to clapping. It was because the speaker who had just completed speaking, disparaging comments were being made as that individual was leaving the podium.” Gavin referred back to Tucker’s warning: “The board chair had said, We will entertain public comment, as long as it can be conducted civilly with decorum. They violated.”
Gavin directed that the room be cleared at the 90-minute mark. Dozens of people refused to leave. Even after the board members had been directed by sheriff’s deputies to go to a back room for their safety, McDonald and Woolbright remained on the dais, parlaying with those protesting the order to leave the room even as tension mounted, and Woolbright left when told by a deputy to go to a back room. McDonald did not. (McDonald did not return a call.)
“We have rules. We have procedures, and we have protocols,” Gavin said. “Particularly when it’s a school board and we’re trying to model for the students that there are rules, and that there are procedures in the classroom. If you want to be acknowledged, you raise your hand, you don’t blurt it out. That’s the rule, we follow that rule. Likewise, our board meetings are a model of how we are to respond in society if we have a rule that says, there is no cheering–and it’s during public comment. That is when it is set forth. That is when they are not to do it.” That, anyway, is the rule the board adopted, is operating under and has tasked Gavin to enforce. The rules can change, she said.