The Flagler County School Board is struggling to repair mistrust and diminish acrimony between board members. The summer’s sharp disagreements over masking (or not masking), which upended a series of recent board meetings and workshops, led to equally sharp antagonism last week over board procedures–namely, who may add items to meeting agendas, how, and under what circumstances.
What would under most circumstances been a five-minute discussion, if that, turned into a rehash of prosecutorial accusations, recriminations and seemingly vain explanations that underscored how far board members now diverge from each other, whether on matters of fact or perception. The discussion had no bearing on anything more than how the board conducts its own business. But as that conduct now disproportionately frames discussions it was also a reflection of how most board members now relate to each other: either from behind barriers or with weaponized intentions. Or both.
School boards across the state in August were holding emergency meetings to decide whether to enact mask mandates. A dozen did so, before half retracted later them. Flagler County School Board member Colleen Conklin tried to do the same, but in the context of the board’s only regular meeting in August. Her several motions for a mandate failed one after the other.
The votes took place during one of the board’s most fractious meetings in memory, both on the board and in the audience, where unruliness led Board attorney Kristy Gavin to recess the meeting so the room could be cleared, and two board members–Janet McDonald and Jill Woolbright–either ignored or didn’t hear sheriff’s deputies’ directives to retreat to a safe room in back of the meeting room as they continued to engage with the mob-like audience.
The August 17 meeting laid bare a deep rift on the board that has yet to heal. School Board member Janet McDonald briefly targeted Gavin in the following days (as she did again to some extent last Tuesday). Board members tried to hash it out at a day-long “retreat” mediated by an independent facilitator. They spent half the day exchanging hostilities, digging the rift deeper. September’s board meeting was just as fractious. It went better at the October meeting last week, when the hostility and disinformation was limited to a few public comments that grafted various vague grievances to misinformed claims about “critical race theory.”
But when the board met for an “information” workshop last week, the hostility was back.
Conklin herself wanted to discuss how to make changes to the board’s agenda. McDonald took it instead as an opening to return to the August meeting’s fracas: “There should never be anything at a business meeting that we were not informed about,” she said.
There’s little question that McDonald and Woolbright had not been clearly informed that a vote on masking was coming, though there’s also little question that the matter of school district covid protocols was on the agenda, if with little detail. That’s not unusual. Board agendas are often troves of gaps and voids where back-up material should be. Whatever material school board members are afforded with the agenda, ahead of the meeting, should be posted online for public inspection. That’s not always the case. But nor is every item accompanied by back-up material.
“Maybe we can add a statement in there in regards to the emergency items,” Conklin, sho’d defended making her masking motions as part of an emergency situation, said.
“No,” McDonald interrupted, speaking over Conklin. “It wasn’t an emergency item.”
“We’re not going to rehash this every five minutes,” Conklin said. “You can say no all you want. But your interpretation of what took place and my interpretation of what took place is totally different. I shared it under the concept or idea that it was an emergency item.”
“Emergency items need to come before everyone before it goes for a vote,” McDonald said. “All items need to be discussed at workshops before the meeting, otherwise emergencies are handled the way they’re handled–with the superintendent and the attorney, getting to everyone.”
“It’s not realistic, and that’s not what happened. We can rehash this again and again and again, we have a difference of opinion,” Conklin said.
That didn’t resolve the issue. Board member Jill Woolbright, who did not think Conklin’s matter was an emergency, wanted clarification on who defines what an emergency is, “or how does a school board member get an emergency item put on.” (Other Florida school boards, including Volusia, had enacted mask mandates as emergencies, but the meetings they scheduled were themselves emergency meetings.)
Gavin referred to board policy, which related to emergency situations such as hurricanes rather than to the Conklin motions. In those cases the superintendent makes a determination if an emergency meeting is necessary. Beyond that, the board chairman and the superintendent would determine what would constitute an emergency. The board attorney doesn’t have the authority to place an item on the agenda.
“The only thing in my mind that made it an emergency was the timing of where we were in the school year with respect to, if you were making a change,” Gavin said, “based on whatever statistics or information was out there of concern.” The governor’s emergency order, the Department of Education and the Department of Health had all just enacted emergency orders or executive orders that the district could react to–or merely follow.
But Conklin’s move had been under the “old business” portion of the agenda. “Anybody has a right to place under old business any topic of discussion that you want considered by the board. If nobody else wants to consider it, it’s not even an issue then if it dies.” Conklin’s item was placed under old business as a discussion topic the Friday before the meeting–for possible action, as the numerous boards across the state were calling emergency meetings at the time.
McDonald wanted advance warning to the board members “so it wasn’t a surprise.” She called it going “below the surface and sabotage a meeting.” McDonald, who last month fabricated a story about being threatened at a meeting, was being disingenuous: when she chaired the board, she invited a pastor to begin a board meeting with a prayer in August 2019, breaking a five-decade custom of not beginning meetings with a prayer. She never informed other board members, the superintendent or the attorney.
She made a similar, far more consequential move when, again when she was chairing the panel, she blindsided then-Superintendent Jim Tager and board members at a workshop by declaring more than a year before his tenure was over that the district had to start looking for his replacement. The move, which Tager and other board members never saw coming, eliminated any possibility for Tager to retain his job after sitting out six months, to comply with retirement-fund rules. Tager had been considering that possibility, and had support on the board to carry it through. But McDonald’s move, he wrote in a letter, soured him.
At the workshop last week McDonald continued to insist that Conklin had acted improperly, and that social media chatter was more aware of the coming masking motions than she and Woolbright were. Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt usually stays out of the fray when board members debate their procedures. This time she intervened.
So it came forward under old business, put the onus here,” the superintendent said of the Conklin matter. “Just like you have at the beginning of the meeting, chair asks the superintendent: is there a change on the agenda for this evening, and put a statement in there that says there’s a new agenda item that might have potential voting ramifications to it. If you add a clause or something like that, that puts the onus back on the board chair and the superintendent, right when the meeting begins, if it’s something that came up hastily, then at least there’s a discussion.”
Then it was Woolbright’s turn to be disingenuous as she said she was still trying to figure out how Conklin’s motions were an emergency “because in my mind it would never be an emergency to take a vote against the governor of our state, and the executive order,” as she put it–or how people in the audience knew of the coming vote. But the audience at the meeting in question was overwhelmingly anti-masking. And the emergency, of course, was driven by what at the time was the gravest spike in covid cases Flagler had experienced, in schools and beyond them, causing some school boards experiencing similar spikes to take emergency votes precisely against the governor’s order. Woolbright, who does not hide her ideological allegiance to the governor, has repeatedly said that countering the governor’s order would have been illegal.
Board Chairman Trevor Tucker acknowledged that Woolbright and McDonald could have been better informed ahead of the meeting, and offered a simple solution: morte clarity ahead of meetings. Gavin said the electronic agendas can issue alerts when amendments are added. But regarding the Conklin motions, she stressed: “I don’t know how to say this, other than it was not known whether there would be a vote, or would not be a vote.” Gavin apologized to the board members for not properly communicating the August amendment.
But Woolbright and McDonald were seeing a conspiracy where there had been none. The administration did not know what Conklin was preparing to do, whether in the form of a vote or to seek a consensus. McDonald saw “orchestration.” Woolbright saw defiance of the governor. Tucker, a stickler for procedure, did not appear perturbed to the point of making what literally had been a matter of “old business” a renewed matter of state.
“Again, this came forward as old business,” the superintendent said. “Anyway we can tighten up our procedures moving forward we get better. And I think that’s the whole endgame here is how can we always continue to strive and get better.”
The half-hour discussion had revolved around a list of bullet points outlining board procedures.
“It’s a matter of perception,” Conklin said, having the last word. “I don’t think there’s any single one of them that I didn’t follow, and I don’t think it’s right for the blame to fall on either Kristy, or Kathy. In hindsight, when I made that request what I should have done is CC the rest of the board and said–do not communicate or do not respond. But I think moving forward again there’s none of those bullet points that I see directly that were violated”