On September 9, the Flagler County School Board Board held a day-long workshop it called a “retreat” to conduct the “Master Board” program, an exercise designed to train school boards and their superintendent in governance and effectiveness. The program is designed by the Florida School Board Association. The Flagler session was led by April Griffin, a leadership services consultant with the FSBA.
The Flagler board is fractured. It’s been experiencing tense, contentious meetings and at times bitter internal disagreements. Tensions spilled into the open at the session, held in a third-floor conference room at the Government Services Building. The session was open to the public and was only lightly attended though at one point the school board attorney and two board members attempted to bar a reporter and others from recording the meeting. The reporter did not comply. The prohibition would have violated Florida’s open-meetings law.
This is the second of two articles on the retreat. See the first, “‘I Was Threatened With Death’: School Board’s Janet McDonald Re-Writes History With Fabrication.”
“The whole entire training is to help the governance system, which is the school board and the superintendent, work together with a unified entity as a unified team,” April Griffin, the Florida School Board Association consultant leading the Flagler school board’s training session, told the panel at the outset of what was to be a six-hour session–what proved to be at times a grueling, at times a shocking display of mistrust, dysfunction, dissembling and exasperation by one board member or another.
Griffin called unified governance a “moral imperative.” It was anything but that day.
But the contention was at least in part by design: Board Chairman Trevor Tucker had deferred to that “retreat” several internal issues and tensions that had piled up, not least the fallout from the board’s Aug. 17 meeting, one of its ugliest in a series of increasingly ugly meetings going back to 2019. Back then and through 2020 the dividing line was over LGBTQ rights.
More recently, and like in so many local government boards across the country, it’s been Covid, masking, and elected officials using their position on the dais to echo community misinformation and spread it with the authority of their position.
Griffin, herself a former school board member for eight years in Alachua County, was direct and unafraid directly to tackle the chaos of th Aug. 17 meeting, which had left even her frightened as she watched deputies attempt to clear the chamber, after Board Attorney Kristie Gavin had called a recess, and two board members–Janet McDonald and Jill Woolbright–appear to ignore the directives to go to a rear, safe room and let deputies do their work.
The recess was called after the full room had been getting more offensive toward speakers. The session with Griffin was the first time that the board had a chance to air its grievances. There were many. No one held back.
“Clapping is not the only thing that is civility,” Gavin said at the “retreat,” explaining her decision to clear the room. “Civility is how we treat each other and disparaging remarks to one side or the other is not appropriate. And so I don’t care which side you’re on, if disparaging remarks are being made towards the speaker, which took place with one speaker, while that speaker was there, disparaging remarks were being said towards that person, and they even responded to it. The next speaker that got up as they were walking away, disparaging remarks were being made towards that person. That’s the civility. That’s when it went to–we have to stop this. We cannot continue to be evil to each other.”
McDonald said she hadn’t heard any of those disparaging statements, did not understand why the meeting was being recessed and should have had an explanation from the attorney.
“I trust her call,” Board member Cheryl Massaro said of Gavin. “When she said we needed to stop, I said okay. In my mind, I trust her. She’s doing that for a reason. We need to go. At that point, I left. Colleen left. Trevor left. Well, no, Trevor stayed because he tried to corral the two of you,” Massaro said of McDonald and Board member Jill Woolbright.
“I’m sure you did not hear what was said. I didn’t hear it. So I know you didn’t,” Massaro continued. “But I trust her. She’s part of our team. And that’s what this is all about. Now, I’m not sure I trust any of you, because of what happened. Because then when law enforcement took over, that was the part that really concerned me the most. Law enforcement took over. They’re in charge. It is their call. And you still didn’t listen. That’s what concerned me because of the safety of everybody in that room, not just us. Yes, they were angry with us. You know, not just us. But every person in that room: safety was an issue. There are a lot of crazy people out there. Anybody could have pulled a weapon at that point. You do what law enforcement tells you. I’ve always been taught that. And I believe in that.”
“Deputy Landi should not have had to corral anybody,” Conklin said, referring to the sheriff’s John Landi.
Woolbright said she did not know that Landi had told any of the board members to clear the room and go to the back. “So I’m looking at this crowd of people that are not leaving. Some of the people in there are very good people that I know, that have different opinions,” Woolbright said, attributing the situation to “politics.” She said she was not afraid. “So I tried to do what I thought anybody could do was to calm them. Because they wanted to be heard.” The minute Landi ordered her to leave, she left, she said, even though she didn;t feel she needed to leave.
McDonald said there was “confusion” over the recess decision, and that the crowd “felt we were violating our trust with them.” She did not take Landi’s order as an order, and went back to discussing the decision to recess: “All of a sudden, something was heard by some of you that wasn’t heard by me and apparently not by Jill. How do we say, oh, we’re acting in concert with what we’ve asked the public to do?”
“You’re both being totally disingenuous, I’m sorry,” Conklin told Woolbright and McDonald. “And I don’t trust what you’re saying. And that is just the reality of the situation. I do not, do not believe that you didn’t realize, know or understate what was happening at that point in time. The meeting was called. The recess was called. We were all gone. Both of you knew everyone was directed to the back of the room. I just find it disingenuous to sit here now and say, I didn’t know it. Twenty-one years I’ve been on this board. I have never had a meeting like that. So I’ve never been in that situation either, to know how to respond. But I didn’t know that I was following the sergeant of arms direction at that point in time.”
“Let’s stop this nonsense, because the meeting was called, a recess was called,” Conklin continued. “There was an earlier comment about a gentleman in the front, packing.” (A member of the audience told a deputy he had a gun.) “We didn’t know what that was. You have an officer who has told everyone: clear the room, all of you, for your safety, into the back room. I have known deputy Landi for a long time. I have never seen him that upset and angry. Because you put him in the situation where it created an additional, unsafe scenario. I’m glad you didn’t feel unsafe, Janet. I felt unsafe.”
“Of course you did,” McDonald said.
“And maybe other people felt unsafe. And that really is irrelevant whether I felt safe or I didn’t feel safe. The parliamentarian called the meeting, we were asked to vacate the area for our safety and the safety of the people in that room.”
McDonald continued to insist she was only helping to calm down the room.
“I can’t be called disingenuous,” Woolbright said. “Because you and Cheryl didn’t appreciate the comments that the crowd were making and their stance, that’s why you left the room.” At that point most of the board members are talking loudly over each other. Tucker intervened to calm everyone down, and Griffin reminded the panel that meetings could be recessed for many reasons. She was not talking about the workshop she was leading. But she continued: “As a watcher, as someone who was just watching the meeting online afterwards, I felt unsafe and I was in my house, when they’re screaming and shouting. And I gotta say, civility has left the building all over the state and all over the nation.”
Griffin then admonished them: “When has it ever been acceptable to scream at each other? Never. Okay, so don’t do that again.” She then asked: “Would you have liked to kids to be watching that meeting?”
No, the board members replied.
“Pandering to the people that are mad at the meetings isn’t what’s best for the kids,” Griffin said.
“Or online,” Woolbright said, an underhanded reference to Conklin’s activity on Facebook. Conklin, who was sitting at the opposite end of the room, heard the comment. She would soon come back to it. But it was at that point, 50 minutes into the meeting, that Gavin intervened to request that recordings cease. Some 40 minutes later, the workshop resumed. The break was a chance for Griffin to pivot to a different subject: governance, strategic plans and other foundational parts of a board member’s job.
After a half-hour lecture on those subjects, Conklin returned to Woolbright’s statement: “The snarky comments have just got to stop,” Conklin said. “So I’m gonna put this on the table.” She then referred to the Aug. 17 meeting when the board voted 3-2 against her motions to enact a mandatory mask mandate. That wasn’t going to stop her from sharing information on Facebook “to choose different things to keep themselves safe,” Conklin said. “I would feel irresponsible simply ignoring the situation. I’m sharing information from the CDC. If people want to ignore it, they can ignore it.” She said she didn’t think that was inappropriate.
Griffin hesitated before discussing matters of trust. “The trouble with this,” Griffin said, “is that trust hasn’t been built. So if they don’t trust that you’re speaking with good purpose, then their perception is that you’re not speaking with good purpose.”
Conklin said she was not going against the board in her posts, which were not “dissent” from board decisions, but informational, apart from board decisions. Griffin again went back to “perception is reality,” thus lending the perception of Conklin’s fellow board members’ perception more weight or meaning than Conklin intends. “ I can’t control what people read into the communication,” Conklin said.
“But you can control what you’re writing,” Griffin said, asking her if she thought what she was doing was a “moral imperative,” or if she was the only way the public could get that information–a remarkable attempt at imposing on Conklin’s Facebook page the sort of strictures the school board imposes on speakers at public meetings. “That might be one way that your fellow board members and superintendent wouldn’t read into what you write,” Griffin said.
Woolbright also put it all on the table: “I’ve had an issue since the beginning of time with how social media has been used by you, Colleen, I really have. It’s hard for me, this is not pleasant for me to say it. Because I know, without a doubt, this is not–I am not questioning your integrity. I’m not questioning your motives. I’m not questioning that at all. Please know that I know everything you do, you do because this is what you believe is right for kids. I am not questioning that, please understand that. But you’re so out there on public media, social media. And there are times where I don’t even know where to start.”
Woolbriught said the masking mandate matter had been decided, yet Conklin kept appearing on Facebook, on WNZF, in other media. Conklin had just co-hosted an online conversation about Covid with Dr. Paul Mucciolo, an emergency room physician at AdventHealth Palm Coast and the chief of staff there, who just months ago had been Conklin’s opponent in the race for her seat. “You went everywhere,” Woolbright continued, “And it was the same panel of people that you have on your show that are politically opposed to the governor.”
“ What are you talking about?” Conklin said, startled.
“Let her finish,” McDonald snapped. “Let her finish. Let her finish, please.”
Woolbright listed the state’s various orders that have the force of law, against mask mandates. “Our local health department is in complete opposition to what the order says,” Woolbright said, and the board was legally bound by those orders. “So to have them on your panel and to promote all that is causing, promoting the dissension and all this up here that we’re talking about in the community, where the divisiveness is, and is not supportive of what we decided as a board, because we decided that there wouldn’t be a mask mandate. … So to take the local health department, support them, to me is not supporting the board’s decision. ”
It was clear from Woolbright’s statement that she had either not watched Conklin’s full program or was grossly misinterpreting it: while some of the panelists–including Mucciolo and Bob Snyder, the health department chiefs–were unapologetic advocates of universal masking, the program was in no way a challenge or in defiance of the school board’s decision, which wasn’t the focus. The program was an extended version of WNZF’s Covid update every Friday morning on Free For All Fridays, with more details on trends and numbers and some testimonies by the likes of Dr. Anthony Tucker, a local physician who survived Covid after an extended bout in a coma.
By the time of the “retreat,” Woolbright had exchanged a few emails with Mucciolo, after Mucciolo had written an extended letter to the board decrying its masking decision. “ “Please step clear of the bureaucratic haze in which you’ve retreated and look at the numbers of Flagler’s children infected with COVID-19,” Mucciolo wrote Woolbright on Sept. 1. “Standing hands on hips while Rome burns records your script in indelible ink.”
In her answer, Woolbright asked Mucciolo, who has a disabled son: “Are you quarantining from your family? You are a bigger risk to them than a no mask mandate.” She apologized in a subsequent email, but called his original email “offensive,” and made a veiled threat about the Conklin video: “Maybe the governor and Florida Department of Health should receive a copy of that video.”
Yet at one point in the “retreat,” Woolbright said: “There are some that seem to want to censor other board members. And it’s like–I don’t think any of us need to be censored.”
The dynamics between Woolbright and Mucciolo were not aired at the retreat, of course. Griffin, who could go only on what she was hearing in the room, told Conklin she could try not to be political. The irony didn’t sit well with Conklin.
“The person I had co-host with me was my opponent from the last school board election, who is a lifelong Republican, who is a physician and a doctor,” Conklin said. “The other doctor, I have no idea what his political affiliation is.” (As of 2020, that physician was registered independent.) “All I know is he survived 63 days in ICU with Covid and had a perspective to share. So I don’t know what political–the only one bringing a political angle to any of these discussions, constantly, are Jill, you, and, I’m sorry, Janet. So the idea that that was meant to be political really is disappointing, exceptionally disappointing. And you and all of the rabble-rousing and the stirring of the pot, I’m sorry. It’s coming from both of you. And you’ve been caught on videotape.
“What are you talking about?” McDonald said.
“So listen, let’s not play games,” Conklin continued. “If you really want to be a bridge-builder, okay, you would know that that was about sharing public health information. I reached out to build a bridge with my opponent, who’s a lifelong Republican, for that exact reason so the people would see, we’re going to set aside the politics, and just talk about how to keep people safe. The fact that you walked away from that discussion–that’s political. And the only reason I was on the radio was because David Ayres,” the host of Free for All Fridays and general manager at Flagler Broadcasting, “called about viewing that program. I don’t have a show, I don’t have multiple opportunities for discussions. When they come up and it’s a hot topic, yes, we have those conversations. And I absolutely will be careful with the words that I use when I’m sharing information. I don’t want to sow dissent with anybody on this board at all. But if anybody thinks I’m not going to share information that is in the best interest of the community, that’s just inappropriate to even ask an elected official to do that.”
McDonald then referred to social media platforms and claimed, “I don’t go on any of them. I don’t have time for that. And I don’t think it helps our community.” That was a lie: the very day of the workshop, McDonald had retweeted a misleading article about vaccines from Gateway Pundit, the same reactionary blog that had written a grossly inaccurate account of the Aug. 17 meeting. On Sept. 13 alone, McDonald tweeted or retweeted 13 items. Still, she accused Conklin’s word choice of being “inflammatory” and went on: “How are we going to trust each other if we can’t hear what’s being said by the other side, and acknowledging that maybe there should be none of that on the social media?”
The conversation didn’t evolve past Woolbright constantly referring to issues being political–she even claimed that the presence of a reporter in the room was political–McDonald expanding the definition of political beyond party affiliation and Conklin calling it “the biggest joke” that either McDonald or Woolbright were bemoaning the politics of situations. “Some people just need to look in the mirror,” Conklin said.
“Your issue is a trust issue,” Griffin told the board as a whole. “I would be remiss to tell you that I think you can solve this. Because you have to want to.” At that point, it didn’t look like the hurdle could be overcome.
Woolbright took up her own cause, but it was again clearly directed at Conklin: “I don’t go on Facebook and put anything political. Nada, nothing,” Woolbright said. “I don’t go in and give quotes to the media that disparages other members. I have chosen to speak up today. And I chose to speak at our first masterboard the first time. This is where I’m trying to deal with it, right here with my peers. I have not gone public, as other people on my board have been extremely public with their opinions about other board members, and about all this stuff. And I don’t. God is my witness.” Conklin let out an exasperated sigh. “I chose today to say it because I try to be respectful at the dias and not interrupt or make comments.”
“We’re not going to make you to agree,” Griffin said, “because there’s nothing that I can say, there’s nothing that you, either one of you, can say. And I’m going to throw Janet in this too, that is going to change your mind.” She said it’s up to each board member to make his or her statements, but not to debate the other board members’ statements–an odd interpretation of deliberative, representative government that essentially neutralizes elected officials from challenging each other’s positions. It’s not how most effective, creative boards work. Startlingly, however, Griffin also claimed: “Educating the public is not the purpose” of school board meetings.
Massaro had sat mostly quiet the entire time–the meeting was over two hours old when she brought up a different matter. McDonald in recent meetings has gotten in the habit of ending the Pledge of Allegiance with an additional line of her own about “born and unborn children,” reflecting her anti-abortion stance (another recurring theme on her Twitter feed). Massaro wondered about it at a recent workshop. Tucker suggested it could be discussed at the “retreat.” When Massaro brought it up, McDonald and Woolbright called her initial remarks at the workshop “aggressive.” (However subjective the interpretation, a review of the video indicates nothing “aggressive” in Massaro’s question or demeanor, but merely inquisitive.)
“Your tone today was different than your tone the other day,” McDonald said.
“Very much,” Woolbright said. It looked as if Massaro had heard enough.
“You two, you know, you two are ironic,” Massaro told them. “You always cry wolf, but you’re the ones that are creating so much of the havoc at our meetings. It’s just amazing to me, as I sit here and I watch and I listen. And I don’t say very much, because I always try to stay in the middle, I really do. I like to hear the different opinions, because that helps me better govern in my mind, because I’m hearing both sides. Seriously speaking. But what’s happening is our meetings are getting dominated by–not discussion. Jill, I’m I’m at the point now, I’m going to ask our chair to limit our comments, because you just go on and on and on about laws and vitamins and this and that. I don’t think that’s helping our children. It’s okay to have those thoughts. I just don’t think it’s helping our kids and helping us as a team.”
Massaro continued–it was her second and last soliloquy of the day: “And you also happen to always bring some religion into it. I firmly believe that our forefathers made separation of church and state for a purpose. I do. And you know, you can’t, you can’t. You can have them off to the side, do what you want with your life, it’s fine. That’s wonderful. But don’t bring it into governance, because it was not made that way. And it’s ironic that Colleen is taking all the heat from the two of you, but the two of you are very active, and very demeaning at times to a lot of other things. So you don’t have halos here. They’re tarnished, too. Trevor sits there, I kind of try and sit there and take it in. But there comes a point where we need to get more control as a board, because we look terrible. We are not a team. We don’t have trust.”
Massaro said the board had been nearing a position of trust months ago, “and then this whole masking thing starts.”
McDonald pledged she would say the amended part of the Pledge “internally” from now on. The rest agreed to be more circumspect in their closing comments.
By then the meeting was approaching 2 p.m. The board members were clearly glad at that point to sit back and listen to Griffin lecture about leadership and purpose. Between lunch and a scheduled, separate board meeting–a very brief ratification of financial documents–the “retreat” came to a natural midpoint break.
The session in the latter part of the day was less abrasive, with one exception–another brawl over the Aug. 17 votes on masking. But for the most part Griffin kept the session on a series of exercises that gradually started to resemble a counseling session at a 12-step program, with brief confessionals, the occasional emotional moment, and glance after glance at smart phones’ clocks.
These “master board” sessions are designed to get a board working together cohesively and effectively. Going through them earns a board a certificate, usually in the form of a plaque. But this board had no illusions.
“Do you believe that you’re a master board?” Griffin asked at the end of the day.
“Not even close,” came the unanimous answer. There would be no plaque. Not yet, anyway.