It is almost a certainty that come Feb. 4, Jacob Oliva will be named Flagler County’s new school superintendent, and that he possibly will assume the post sooner than the end of June, when Superintendent Janet Valentine was scheduled to retire.
The determinism behind the appointment has rankled some members of the black community, who point to an inexcusably high rate of failing minority students, and who say that nothing short of a regime change—new blood at the top—can break away from the status quo. The school board’s full confidence in the current regime begs to differ.
Valentine appointed Oliva in June 2012 as her deputy and superintendent-in-waiting, a decision the board applauded. A majority of Flagler County School Board members are already on record strongly favoring Oliva as her replacement. And Oliva’s seamless assumption of Valentine’s responsibilities since Valentine suffered a stroke before Thanksgiving appears to vindicate her decision not only to create a succession plan, but to have Oliva be that successor: despite Valentine’s absence, the board, which prizes collegiality and cohesion, has powered on—aggrieved over Valentine’s absence, but essentially unaffected by it as an organization.
Nevertheless, the school board is going through the motions of a national superintendent search by way of a 15-member committee, just appointed to conduct the search and recommend a short-list of three candidates for interviews. It will be Oliva and two stand-ins, who will be interviewed by the board knowing that their odds of getting the job are about as good as the Jaguars winning the Super Bowl. (The Jaguars have already been eliminated.)
“I believe the board has committed to finding and making sure that we have the best available candidate,” Board Chairman Andy Dance said today. “I’ve said it before, we have the best of both worlds. We have a great candidate who’s ready to take over, but we also feel that there’s an obligation to make sure that we have looked and made available the opportunity for other candidates to apply, to make sure the district is in the best hands possible.”
The school board conducting a search mostly—but not entirely—for the sake of appearances, principally to appease the NAACP, but also to more publicly vet Oliva’s candidacy and avoid the charge of making a unilateral choice without public input. Think of it as a the confirmation hearing of a well-qualified candidate for a judicial seat: while the majority of the Senate may be prepared to vote for the nominee, the hearings, on rare occasions, can reveal a fatal flaw and change the course of the nomination. Since Oliva has been in the public eye for the past four years—as a principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School and an assistant superintendent—a surprise derailment is unlikely. He is the Chosen One. But hearings must still be held.
NAACP President Linda Haywood knows it. “And I think we are being appeased,” she said in an interview today. But she also notes the appointment of several NAACP members to the “search committee” of what the school board calls “targeted stakeholders,” among them John Winston—leader of the district’s African-American Mentor Program—Myra Middleton-Valentine and Sandra Stubbs. Haywood has also stepped back from the charge she made in August, when she called the board’s clear stance then—to favor Oliva—“cronyism at its best.”
But she still has no illusions.
“I hope this is a genuine effort, not just to keep my big mouth and others closed,” Haywood said, “but I hope they are actually going to consider the hiring of the most qualified candidate, not just the person ready to step in.” Haywood recognizes the qualities that allowed Oliva to immediately take the reins after Valentine’s stroke, but she said that’s not enough. “If they are still part of that machine that is not well oiled, you wonder how much progress they’re going to make,” she said. “Will they keep things going, yes. But you wonder how well they’ll keep things going.”
Dance sees Oliva’s performance since Valentine was hospitalized as grist for more confidence in him. “Having Jacob in place has definitely been an advantage for the district and allowed us to continue with business as usual without any hiccup,” Dance said.
On Tuesday the board appointed its 15-member search committee, with each board members choosing three committee members. (See the list below.) The board outlined the process from now until the announcement on Feb 4, starting with committee meetings on Dec. 10 and 12 to produce a job description. The job will be advertised for a month, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 17, which happens to include the slowest business weeks of the year. The committee will meet again on Jan. 17 and 22 to draw up a short list of applicants, three of whom will be interviewed on Jan. 30 and 31 by the school board. All sessions of the committee and the school board will be open to the public, and open to some public participation, but the committee will be limited to making recommendations only. The final decision is the board’s, and it will be announced at a 1:30 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
One of the voices the committee and the board will keep hearing is that of Rev. Sims Jones, a pastor who makes no secret of his strong disagreement with the board’s approach. He is not happy that none of the board members picked him to participate in the search committee, though he made his desire to serve known. He considers the committee a hand-picked group of people who’ll fulfill the board’s pre-determined wishes, which are not his. He wants a black superintendent.
“Definitely,” Jones said. “A black superintendent would help to look elsewhere, looking for more black teachers, looking for different ways to get the black students or the minority students involved. A number of times when I see the different groups coming up before the school board, I’m always noticing how low the number of minorities are that appear before the board. I’m starting to wonder if they’re all hand-picked.”
Jones isn’t imagining things: Blacks make up 13 percent of the school district’s population (almost in line with the national proportion of blacks in the population), but are almost invisible among teacher and administrative ranks. The disproportionate number of black students getting disciplined and expelled prompted a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center that itself shook the district into more purposeful action, especially with teacher recruiting, but broad-based results haven’t yet become apparent.
“I have been looking for new ideas,” Jones said. “the best way to improve the scores and the academics of the children, someone with some kind of idea as to how we can get our children from being 40 percent failing—there’s something wrong at the top, that’s not the teachers or the principals, that’s something wrong at the top. Sixty percent of minorities are failing, and that to me is unacceptable. That’s what we need to change, because continuing to do the same thing will continue to get the same result.” He adds: “Not being disrespectful or anything, but a white person cannot understand what’s going on in the culture and the way things are done in the black culture.” Jones concedes that that’s not just a white problem, but a mutual one, created by mutual alienations that neither side is learning to bridge.
Haywood said the desire for a black superintendent is not representative of the NAACP’s position. “We do understand the need for minority in the position. It would not hurt,” Haywood said. “We’re not demanding a minority. We’re demanding that all candidates be treated fairly.”
The pressure on the school board to conduct a more open process is also geared at more than the superintendent’s choice, Haywood said: it reminds the board that minority issues have not been given their due, that they are a priority, and that beyond the likely appointment of Oliva as superintendent, the hard work will yet have to be done.
In sum, while Oliva’s place may be assured, the assistant superintendent he appoints may be scrutinized by minority stakeholders as much as his own appointment will be. And between now and the appointment, many ears will be trained on how Oliva speaks of the achievement gap and its rarely spoken-of racial parameters. Whatever he says—or doesn’t say—may define the degree of trust his most skeptical constituency is willing to invest in him once his tenure begins.
The search committee:
Maria Pinto-Barbosa; Bill McGuire; John Winston; Mitzi Gee; Nancy Walsh; Sandra Stubbs; Barbara Revels; Peter Birtolo; Myra Middleton; David Alfin; Joe Rizzo; Jessie Magee; Carol King; Sal Passalaqua; Lauri Alter.
See the school board and the search committee’s schedule here.