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Days After Tax Defeat, a Divided Flagler School Board Recoils at a Pair of Expensive Contracts

| June 19, 2013

Some realignments are taking place on the Flagler County School Board, with Colleen Conklin looking to be more of a budget hawk in light of the June 7 referendum rejecting a higher tax for education. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Some realignments are taking place on the Flagler County School Board, with Colleen Conklin looking to be more of a budget hawk in light of the June 7 referendum rejecting a higher tax for education. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Janet Valentine, the Flagler County School Superintendent, knew she had two tough proposals to sell the board. One was a contract worth $97,000, to improve reading skills for younger students. The other was a five-year, $534,000 contract for a tool that would primarily benefit administrators as they evaluate teachers in accordance with a new state requirements on what teachers to reward with extra pay, and what teachers to fire.

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The board approved the first proposal on a 3-2 vote and rejected the second, also on a 3-2 vote, exposing the new reality the board is operating under since voters just two weeks ago rejected by a large margin a referendum that would have granted the district more money by taxing residents slightly more.

“I just find it amazing,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said, that in that one meeting “we have two budget items in front of us tonight that’s like $600,000. It kind of blows my mind. I don’t understand that.”

Valentine and her administrators did their best to separate the proposals from recent political implications of the vote, stressing all sorts of things that buffered the contracts from the tax pot that local voters focus on—the general fund, where their property tax revenue goes. They were successful up to a point.

A thin margin of board members approved the $97,000 proposal that will provide a stronger diagnostic and tracking tool for teachers and administrators in so-called Title I programs at the district’s elementary schools (including Palm Harbor, the charter school, and two private schools that have federally backed remedial reading programs). Title I dollars come from the federal government and are spent on poorer, more at-risk students.

“With Title I dollars, we are very limited on how we can spend those, it has to be proven programs that we can purchase,” Valentine said. “So I know sometimes these seem like wow, do we really need to spend dollars on that. But this is exactly the kind of thing that Title I is set up for, is to provide programs that are very specific to the students who may be struggling academically.”

Tammy Yorke, the district’s coordinator of federal programs, said that the money would be drawn from some $500,000 being rolled forward into next year’s budget, as the district was frugal with its federal dollars this year.

It’s the sort of program that in previous year would have had Conklin’s near-blind support. Not this time. The item was never discussed during the harrowing, multi-meeting budget discussions in May, when the board was looking for numerous programs and areas to cut to fill a budget gap. But that’s because the program is outside those funds, Valentine said. That didn’t matter to Conklin, particularly since the district does have some diagnostic tools in place. They’re not as refined.

“We have a budget issue,” she said, “so I’m uncomfortable looking right now at a purchase on something that it seems like we’ve already got things that we might be able to utilize in diagnosing some of our kids in regards to instruction.”

The vote resulted in that strange alignment: Board Chairman Andy Dance, Sue Dickinson and John Fischer approving, and Conklin and Trevor Tucker, the boar’s traditional budget hawk, opposed.

Then came the bigger item: a $534,000, five-year contract with a San Francisco-based company called Teachscape. The proposal was to certify the district’s 50-some principals and assistant principals as they train to evaluate teachers within the framework of a stricter, far more complicated state-required system the Legislature approved last spring.

The system sets up an arcane evaluation system that entails rewarding the highest performing teachers with merit play, while firing teachers who get two successive unsatisfactory evaluations. The system is intimidating in many respects, not least because its implementation is fraught with pitfalls, including liabilities: districts fear that it will lead to lawsuits. Principals and assistant principals fear it will alienate them from their staff. Teachers fear it will mistreat them and replace traditional observation and evaluation methods with intractable formulas.

janet valentine flagler county schools superintendent

Janet Valentine (© FlaglerLive)

“I know when you’re going to look at this, it’s going to be a large item,” Valentine said, referring to the enormous dollar amount—with not a single dollar directly affecting the classroom. “We’re getting ready to move into a very high-stakes time for our teachers, and we want to make sure that when our principals evaluate those teachers, that again, they are highly trained and it’s consistent from one principal to the next, from one assistant principal to the other. The only way you can really do that is through training.”

The system would have certified principals in the evaluation method. “It just improves the integrity of the observation tool,” the district’s Vernon Orndorff said.

“You can’t help but think we’ve got to have something in place because there’s going to be, or one would expect that we’re going to have situations that are going to get ugly,” board member Sue Dickinson said. “If with all of the changes that are coming into play and everyone’s salary is being attached to those evaluations, it’s just a matter of time before something happens.”

Again, Conklin asked if this item had been part of the recent budget discussions.

No, Valentine said, because the money is coming out of a federal grant in the initial year. She later said that the first year’s cost would be defrayed by $45,000 from the state.

Politically, however, public perceptions are such that whatever the pot the money comes from, it’s school, district money, therefore it’s taxpayer money. And by any definition, that perception is correct: federal grants may be more distant, but they’re still tax-funded. The fact that the money originates beyond local property or sales tax dollars does not diminish public sentiment that it is, dime for dime, public money.

Conklin two other objections: That the contract was for a company that alone appeared capable of providing the service, which Conklin had a hard time believing was the case. And the state had yet to be clearer about what services it would provide to help in the new evaluation process. “I feel like we’re jumping the gun,” Conklin said. “The State Board of Ed is going to have to come out with something to provide some kind of support to administrators who are now put in this position of basically implementing not only Common Core, but implementing the evaluation program. There is no way that the state Board of Education and the Florida Department of Education is not going to provide some kind of support or training.”

It was then that Valentine mentioned the $45,000.

An initial motion to approve the contract failed, 3-2. Dance suggested that a board member float another motion, amending it to a one-year contract. (Valentine had explained that the five-year contract had a no-penalty exit clause at the end of the first year, but that the five-year deal locked in prices for that length.) Conklin made that motion. The one-year contract would have cost $107,700, with $45,000 of that paid for with the state grant, and the rest paid for with the federal Race to the Top grant.

Initially, that amended motion appeared to pass, 3-2, with Conklin switching her vote in favor.

But then she heard Dance’s objection. Dance has long opposed the new evaluation system. He called the issue before the board “a microcosm of the entire problem with this performance-based analysis, in conjunction with the testing.”

But by then the board had voted 3-2 to approve the one-year contract.

“I’m going to reconsider my motion because I’m not comfortable with it,” Conklin said, though the motion had passed already. “I’m trying to compromise and I’m not going to do that. I’m not comfortable with it, so I’m going to stick with what my original intent was. I’m not sold that we need it, and I’m not sold that it’s the right thing to do right now, so I withdraw my yes vote.”

That raised a procedural issue and a question to Kristy Gavin, the board attorney.

“If you are asking to rescind the approval, Miss Conklin, correct?” Gavin asked.

“Yes,” Conklin said.

“Because that is what has happened, and so you are wishing to rescind the approval that was just granted, we need to have a vote on rescinding the approval,” Gavin said.

“OK, so the vote is, it is not approved, 3-2,” Dance said. (Dance, Conklin and Tucker were opposed; Dickinson and Fischer were in favor.)

There never was a motion to rescind the earlier vote, or a vote on rescinding it. But the board’s intent was clear. So was its post-referendum move. That doesn’t mean the contract is dead. Valentine has found ways to revive and recast issues in more favorable terms in the past.

15 Responses for “Days After Tax Defeat, a Divided Flagler School Board Recoils at a Pair of Expensive Contracts”

  1. BW says:

    When is our Board going to start realizing that Valentine and her assistant need to go. It’s an evaluation system and everyone’s so concerned people will be effected. Yes, the people not doing their jobs well will be effected. That’s what evaluation systems do. And they provide a means to improve. In some cases, there is no possibility of improvement and it’s time to move on. That’s how organizations improve. IF the teacher is doing their job, they need not worry. So now that there is an evaluation system we need to train and spend $500k+ to do that?

    Here’s how you pay for the for year . . . get rid of Valentine and her assistant.

  2. Jupiter rising says:

    Valentine needs to go. Incompetence at its worst. Something is going to happen? Tell the Board quick – the taxpayers want to know what’s going to happen.

    So, we get a 1/2 million program to evaluate teachers so principals and Ass’t principals can fire teachers based on this program. Nice. You call the teacher in on the last day of school and say, “I’m sorry to let you go but Jupiter Rising (Program) has informed me to let you go – The Program fired you. This way the Principal and the Ass’t Principal can actually put their arm around you as they walk you to the front door.

    Education sucks in Florida and gets more idiotic everyday. Fire the Principals and Ass’t Principals!

  3. Linda says:

    A contract with an out of state company for half a million dollars to evaluate teachers in one county – ours??? Something is seriously wrong if all of these administrators within the state and our county, drawing large salaries, can’t come up with a better evaluation plan than that.

    And maybe they aren’t good at math either, since that proposal is heading towards the billion dollar mark for this little county in economically hard times and just after the voters spoke for belt tightening. Craziness on the part of those suggesting it.

    Thank you to board members who said NO!!

    • Robert says:

      This contract was for five years. What happens after the five years? Is it a $100,000 per year in perpetuity?

      Who were the board members that voted YES? That is the question. Those who voted no are already thinking right.

      Does anyone have the; time, effort and patience to attempt to remove these people who are masquerading as school board administrators.

  4. Teacher Mama says:

    Absurd! Trying to push thru a NO BID contract for half a million dollars???? No wonder voters said “hell no” to a tax increase! The school board should take a “wait and see” approach. The teacher evaluation process is in a state of flux and has been for quite some time now. No one knows what the final product will look like in the end. If there ever is an end to this nonsense, that is. Flagler County has used probably five different evaluation tools in the past ten years. By the time they train these administrators (and they need to train for five years????) half of them will retire or move on to cushy district jobs or move out of state ..and l a new evaluation tool will likely be being used! Who evaluates the School Board, by the way? Regardless, administrators had training in this Charlotte Danielson method and prior to that, in the Marzano Model… and they need even more??? Some administrators attend so much training they are out of the school office more than they are there!

  5. Gram says:

    That there isn’t enough talent within the district to train 50 administrators on teacher evaluation, that the talent to train them has to come all the way from San Francisco of all places, and at such a cost; these are all worrying things.

  6. Magnolia says:

    Valentine’s own salary could us a paring down.

    • Realty Check says:

      @ Magnolia, better yet a revue of her performance, does it seem sneaky to you that she waited until after the $80,000 special election to bring this matter up? I mean 600K is not some thing that just popped up right before the board meeting.

  7. confidential says:

    First round of the magnifying glass approach. One down more to go. The proper monitoring, investigating and dissecting these outrageous proposals of all these administrators in this county and some cities.
    They have the test of the test of the test when I thought the “useless FCAT” rates teachers too. Bet that are more half a million or close contracts being signed around by school administrators. Because plenty of water runs under the bridge from these contracted suppliers.
    Also we have the assistant of the assistant of the assistant. All funded by our depleted pockets.
    The school board needs to be more aware that 62% of the students are eligible for free school meals in Flagler County School due to parental insufficient income and that alone should shake enough these members about the real bad financial condition of most families in this county. Stop asking for higher taxes.

  8. So, basic gist is that we have a school board that has no idea what’s going on with schools nor the basic procedural matters of being a “board.” Hooray…

  9. Jennifer Lopez says:

    Kudos, to Coleen Conklin for digging in!

  10. Anonymous says:

    please help me to understand why we have 50 some principles and assistant principles ?

  11. Out of Curiosity says:

    Michael, I agree. This article left me with the feeling that some board members don’t have a good understanding of how certain funding works (i.e. title I money), and that their listening comprehension skills may need a little work (no penalty for canceling the contract and that the state would be kicking in 45k for the evaluation software).

  12. Pete says:

    And if the referendum passed, they’d still be asking for money. What for! It’s who you know in this County that helps keep your job as a teacher. There all full of hype.

  13. Cash for kids says:

    Do Dickinson and Fisher drink from the same well? Wasn’t Dickinson quoted in 2011 for a quote of the year in the Observer of how she feels about our tax dollars being peanuts?

    Why not reduces some of the administration and Valentines salary to pay for services that would help our kids? School board members should NOT be paid….our children could benefit from this salary money.

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