County Judge Melissa Distler this morning swore in three new Flagler County School Board members–Christy Chong, Will Furry and Sally Hunt–after one of the broadest turn-over elections to the board in recent memory.
The reorganization meeting began on a note of unity as Furry nominated Cheryl Massaro chair, and Board member Colleen Conklin seconded. Massaro won the nomination unanimously. Furry had borrowed a page from former Board member Janet McDonald, who last year hurriedly nominated Trevor Tucker as chair, knowing he’d be the only consensus candidate all board members would back, though for the second year in a row, it had been Conklin’s chairmanship to have.
In previous years–until around 2018–the chairmanship rotated regularly between members, with chairmanships at times lasting more than a year and Conklin chairing the board twice in her 22 years. But that was before school boards became as intensely politicized as they are.
The 3-2 split that bedeviled the board for the past few years was soon apparent again, signaling that while faces have changed, dynamics–and politics–have not. When Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt, chairing the meeting until the reorganization was completed, called for nominations for vice chair, Chong nominated Furry and Massaro nominated Conklin. Hunt, Massaro and Conklin chose Conklin, who had been vice chair last year.
Then it was on to numerous housekeeping items–scheduling issues and routine approvals–before the board disbursed committee assignments, including who serves on which school’s Parent Teacher Organization and School Advisory Council. Unsurprisingly, for example, Furry chose to serve at Old Kings Elementary and Indian Trails Middle School, where his children attend or will attend school. Massaro stayed on the PTO/SAC at Matanzas. Conklin will be seated at Flagler Palm Coast High School, and will remain the legislative liaison with Hunt.
Massaro after many years on it in one way or another, gave up representation on the Department of Juvenile Justice advisory council, ceding the seat to Furry. Chong took the appointment to the school health advisory council. It may mean nothing. It may also mean that the board’s representative on that panel is an arch-conservative who joined Furry in ridiculing science during the election, though that oversight would be in line with that of Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo.
The board also sends four representatives to the Florida School Board Association, one of the increasingly political state boards in the county–two as board directors, two to an advocacy committee–a primary representative and an alternate. Conklin and Massaro are serving as directors, and sought to continue to do so, as chair and vice chair of the school board.
Furry appeared inclined to be a director, and inquired whether it includes “travel to Tallahassee and working with our state leaders,” which Furry signaled an interest in. He didn’t seem as thrilled by the advocacy appointment as he inquired about “different engagement” in the two types of appointments. But he conceded the directorships.
That left the advocacy opening. Furry wanted to be the primary member. So did Hunt. That led to the second split vote of the morning, along the same lines: Chong–eagerness and greenness showing–seconded Furry, though it was not a motion, and did not call for a second. When Mittlestadt called for the vote, it was Furry-Chong for Furry, and Conklin-Hunt-Massaro for Hunt.
The next item was the appointment to the fabulously exciting Value Adjustment Board. Furry took it by as close to acclamation as there could be. “No fighting over that one,” Conklin said wryly, echoing what she’d said earlier about the appointment (it’s not a highly sought position).
That done, it was time for Massaro to begin her chairmanship.
“I promise to do the best that I can to keep this board moving forward and concentrating on academic excellence. That is our goal,” Massaro said. “Our goal is to move this district forward academically,” stressing that last word. It was a veiled reference to the decidedly non-academic, and at times, when discussion turned to literary materials with racial or gender themes, anti-academic direction the two departed school board members had focused on. (Janet McDonald did not contest her seat and lost a bid for the county commission. Jill Woolbright lost to Hunt. Both McDonald and Woolbright had led the campaign from the board to ban or restrict access to some library books.)
Chong read a brief statement at the end of the meeting, calling herself a “momma bear” there to fight for children. She spoke of “creating a good working relationship” with her colleagues. Furry thanked parents and voters, immediately quoted scriptures, congratulated fellow-winners and said he looked forward to working with the board and Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, who rarely gets singled out that this early stage (she had been the target of what Massaro called a “witch hunt” by the board member whose seat Furry replaced.) Hunt, naming each board member in turn and the superintendent, echoed Chong’s reference to the “different lenses that each of us has,” and called Conklin “the biggest champion” for children. She called for a “clean slate” with all the new lenses.
Conklin, her voice hoarse as if from 22 years of service, spoke of her own excitement for what’s ahead “at least for the two years that I’ll be sitting up here,” and looked forward to a retreat to get to know the board members better.
Half the meeting touched on the arcane but required issue, such as renewing the board’s role as a leasing corporation, then onto what was a regular agenda.
The chamber was mostly empty by then, so few people heard Michael Feldbauer, who chairs the county’s Drug Court Foundation board, predict a “dramatic and positive year for everybody.” He was there to remind the board that it should persist in making anti-overdose nasal agents such as Narcan to schools. The district is in the midst of deciding that, though the previous board nodded approval to proceed.
Laura Gollon, a district paraprofessional, also introduced herself as one of her colleagues’ most outspoken members, and went on to address the recent school board campaign. “I am completely and utterly disgusted with the tactics that were relied upon to obtain a position of power in our school district,” she said, without naming Furry and Chong, both of whose campaigns engaged in deceptive and dishonest advertising. “It was immoral, corrupt, egregious, devious and purposeful, and it should be criminal. There should be consequences to that kind of behavior. After all, don’t we teach our children there are consequences to their behavior?”
But there were consequences: they were elected.
Gollon said children are taught good citizenship, and the same should be expected from the elected. “Going forward,” she continued, “I am both fearful and hopeful. I fear we will see more and more contentious school board meetings like we did last year. But my sincere hope is that we experience the opposite this school year, that my fear does not come to fruition. Let’s teach and show our children how to behave civilly even when we’re disagreeing. Let’s show them that bad behavior is not tolerated on any level from anyone. Let’s be the example they need.”
She wished the board and whoever was left in the cavernous chamber a Happy Thanksgiving.