A FlaglerLive Special Report
At its meeting the evening of March 28, the Flagler County School Board will hear the appeal of a pay-related grievance by Paul Peacock, the principal at Wadsworth Elementary since last summer and a district employee since 2005.
On its face, the grievance is not complicated. It comes down to the meaning of the word year: Peacock claims he is owed money based on his services over a calendar year. The district says it pays by fiscal year.
A history of fiscal accounting, legal definitions in state law, and seemingly unequivocal documents, including those Peacock signed, more than suggest that the district is correct in its interpretation of “fiscal year.” But there is a lot more to the grievance beyond its strict claims, complicating the issue and turning it into more of a political wrangle, if not an unfortunate spectacle, than it should be.
It is very unusual for employees to take their grievances all the way to the school board. That alone gives it a higher profile. Peacock has written explicitly of his intent to sue–not over the grievance, but over School Board member Conklin’s characterization of him as “an idiot” and his allegations of other forms of hostility toward him.
Peacock has also been at the center of a controversy involving Sally Hunt, the school board member, who has been meeting with Peacock more often than she’s been meeting with the superintendent, taking his counsel on school matters and on her campaign to replace Mittlestadt, potentially with a friend of Peacock’s, Dusty Sims, the former principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The superintendent’s own contractual fate is part of the grievance’s context, since replacing Mittelstadt has been behind Hunt’s extra-procedural maneuverings.
She claimed on WNZF on March 17 that Peacock’s intention to sue the district was “news to me,” though she has known of his pending grievance at least as far back as Feb. 14, when the board attorney copied Hunt and the rest of the board members on an exchange between the attorney and Peacock. Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney, also copied Peacock’s attorney, Michael Chiumento III.
The matter before school board members is strictly the appeal from decisions by Assistant Superintendent Lashakia Moore, then Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, to deny Peacock his grievance at those levels, and strictly on the matter of whether he is owed another $7,500 or not. The appeal is not an evidentiary hearing. In other words, Peacock may not present evidence other than what has been part of the record before Moore and Mittelstadt.
The rest risks being a peripheral stew of noise, politics, and maneuvering, plus that threat of a lawsuit the board will have to look past to stick to the merits of the appeal. Whether it ends up being so is open to question, given the highly charged tensions and divisions between the five-member board, and the risk that the Peacock issue may be used subtly or coyly as a pretext to influence other matters such as the superintendent’s contract.
Nevertheless, the grievance procedure is to be delimited by time and documents, and will be an opportunity for the board, three of whose members are relatively new, to show to what extent it is willing to stick to procedure–or not.
It will also be delimited by due process, which is where Peacock’s attorney may focus: did the board’s attorney follow procedures as laid out in policy? Has the appeal been handled as it should be, to ensure Peacock’s due process? The answers don’t go directly to Peacock’s claim for the $7,500, but the questions may further complicate the process.
Come Tuesday, Peacock and Mittelstadt will each get to make their case before the board in 15 minute segments, Peacock going first, though each may reserve time for a rebuttal. A motion will be made, and the board will discuss the issue before voting.
The following account, outlining the substance behind Peacock’s grievance and Peacock’s history with the district, is based on hundreds of pages of documents, financial accounts, emails, texts and employee records that FlaglerLive reviewed, their relevant parts linked to the original documents in the body of the article. Peacock did not respond to an invitation to interview or provide a statement.
Origins of the Grievance
With an interruption in 2020, Peacock has long been part of the district’s negotiating team with teacher and employee unions, on the management side of the table. He was chief negotiator for one year, from July 2021, to June 2022.
As a member of district management’s collective bargaining team opposite the Flagler County Education Association (FECA, the teachers union), he was earning a $1,500 stipend in 2019 and 2020, with the “effective date of supplement” listed as July 1, the first day of the fiscal year. (Peacock in formal documents to the district notes that he’d been on the bargaining team 10 years, and had been paid since 2017.)
For the 2021-22 fiscal year, he was named the chief negotiator opposite the service employees’ team (the Flagler Educational Support Professional Association known as FESPA) in addition to his continuing role as one of the negotiators–but not the chief negotiator–with FECA . His stipend for the 2021-22 fiscal year was $7,500–$6,000 for his role as chief negotiator, and $1,500 for his continuing role as negotiator.
That authorization was signed on November 22, 2021, four months into that fiscal year. He was paid on Dec. 15, 2021. (At the time, Peacock’s base pay was $106,272; he would end up earning $117,798 from the district for the 2021 tax year.) There is no question, based on the documents, that the payment covers the fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30, in accordance with all district accounting, not the calendar year.
That May, the district’s two unions suspended negotiations and called “bad faith” on the district’s negotiators after it accused them of reneging on a promise Peacock had made during a negotiation session on insurance rebates. The school board voted down the promise, because the negotiating team did not have the authority to make that offer at that point. In a text to Conklin, Mittelstadt said Peacock “walked it back and took ownership,” but also said the union for being “in front of their communication to membership, which is creating more frustration.”
Peacock was removed from his negotiating role weeks later after what Mittlestadt characterized as the “misstep” with the unions and after Conklin called him “an idiot” in a text to the superintendent, when board members’ emails were “blowing up and social media is a mess” because of Peacock’s “misstep.”
The removal may have been a last straw for the superintendent. Peacock had faced challenges less than a year into his post as head of operations, to which Mittlestadt had appointed him. There were issues at the Carver Center (where board members addressing the Bunnell City Commission openly accused him of dishonesty), and with the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club’s future, all tangled up with the “misstep” in negotiations. He was soon not only removed from the negotiating post, but shifted to principal at Wadsworth Elementary (without a demotion in pay).
He saw it as a demotion, though the superintendent saw it the way she did the shifting of Bobby Bossardet from an equally authoritative position at the district to principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School: she needed leaders in two schools that had seen their leadership in upheaval.
Before It Got to the School Board
When Peacock was removed from the negotiator’s role, only the $7,500 payment was not renewed. His salary stayed the same, even with his shift to Wadsworth. He had received the payment in December 2021, for services through June 2022.
That’s what Peacock filed a grievance over. He is contending that the district owes him an additional $7,500, even though he was no longer a negotiator after June 2022.
On Dec. 16, 2022, Peacock requested an “informal discussion” with Lashakia Moore, the assistant superintendent, claiming the superintendent had withheld wages. He writes that he was typically paid in mid-December, and that “this compensation was for that particular year from January 1-December 31.” That is inaccurate: the document, which Peacock signed, specifies it is for the fiscal year. It does not say that the payment is “in arrears,” as he claims.
It is correct, as he notes, that bargaining took place throughout the year. But he also notes that he was “abruptly removed” as chief negotiator in June 20022, at the end of the fiscal year.
Not satisfied with the “informal conversation,” he first filed what’s called a “Level 1” grievance with Moore, who denied him the grievance. He then filed a “Level 2” grievance with the superintendent. She denied it on Feb. 9. He is now appealing to the school board, the next procedural step.
Peacock is interpreting his term as covering the calendar year, not the fiscal year. He does not deny that he was paid. But he cites state law: “no salary payment shall be paid to any employee in advance of service being rendered,” though the supplement was not part of his salary but was, in fact, a supplement: the board routinely ratifies payments for innumerable services to be rendered, as it had for Jerry Copland, its chief negotiator before Peacock, who was not a district employee.
Moore responded that Peacock had failed to show how any wages were withheld, or to show that he wasn’t aware of the fiscal-year span of his payment. In his appeal to the superintendent, he said he was owed six months’ notice before his wages were “significantly reduced.”
In fact, in a detail Peacock does not disclose, Peacock himself had resigned without advance notice from the bargaining team in August 2020 and didn’t return until the superintendent ap[pointed him chief negotiator in 2021, according to Mittelstadt. He had accepted payment for the full $1,500 stipend due for a year’s work, even though he put in only one month.
The Colleen Conklin Texts
In his grievance, Peacock then mixes in the claims about Conklin, saying he was unjustly removed as a result of what he called “her libelous statements,” which is a different matter. “I will provide hard copies of all the communication between you, Superintendent Mittelstadt and Colleen Conklin to show a pattern of abuse and intermeddling into personnel and operational decisions and demands made by Ms. Conklin and carried out by you,” he wrote Gavin, the school board attorney.
He was (and is) seeking Conklin’s recusal from the appeal process, though Chiumento, his attorney, concedes, in a March 12 email to the board attorney, that “Conklin does not have a legal conflict but may have a perceived one.”
The communications Peacock provides of Conklin’s perceived animosity toward him are a sliver of a mass of communications between her and the superintendent–less than two dozen texts in all, three of which show Conklin directly indicting Peacock. Peacock requested two years’ worth of texts, excerpting only those showing Conklin in poor light.
She is as explicit as it gets, writing in capital letters: “PAUL SHOULD NOT BE INVOLVED IN BARGAINING ANYMORE.” She also calls him “a nightmare.” She would not be the first nor the last board member to voice opinions about staffers: last year, a teacher with a stellar career, Abbey Cooke, was fired over a few seconds’ vulgarities on a TikTok video, after the superintendent was pressured to fire her by then-Board member Jill Woolbright (an action that also set Conklin off in texts). Peacock was not fired, of course. Conklin acknowledged that the texts are “not some of my proudest moments” but stressed that they should not be decontextualized.
“Mr. Peacock is attempting to do all he can to deny me from voting on his grievance,” Conklin said Friday. “For that reason I will not be providing a comment on this issue. However, I am happy to go into additional detail once the hearing has concluded and provide additional context to any text messages.”
“Focus on Wadsworth Elementary”
The mass of texts (which the district provided as a video scroll for ease of archiving, accessible in their entirety here) mostly have nothing to do with Peacock. They reflect an ongoing working relationship with the superintendent. The two also share moments of friendship or concerns over each other’s families, or Chicken Pantry meal dates.
Mostly, the texts speak to Conklin’s concerns over a variety of local education issues, such as a spate of reports that “highly effective” teachers were receiving letters of non-renewal, or financial questions, library books, Covid, impact fees, or complaints about Paul Renner and FlaglerLive’s editor both being “shitty” for releasing news of the death of Joe Rizzo, who was the Flagler Education Foundation executive director. There’s the occasional irony: “This is one of the reasons I hate texting,” Conklin the copious texter writes Mittelstadt at the beginning of a lengthy text.
Mittelstadt’s denial of the Level 2 grievance justified the form and schedule of payments as being in line with “verifiable past practice of supplemental payment for bargaining team members,” citing Copland’s and nine others’ service in that role. Having a chief negotiator for the calendar year, Mittelstadt told him, “would violate state statute.”
“As you stated,” she wrote him on Feb. 9, “I too would like for you to be able to focus on Wadsworth Elementary School and the fantastic teachers, staff and students who deserve your full attention.”
Peacock appealed the next day.
Between 1984 and 1989, Jon Paul Peacock, as goes his full name, owned a company called Peacock Arabians in Glenwood, Fla. He started his education career in 1989 at DeLand High School as a Pals teacher, was a substitute teacher, was in charge of in-school suspensions for three years at a middle school, was a teacher again, then an assistant principal at Deltona High School and Heritage Middle School before ending his career in Volusia as a teacher at Atlantic High School in 2004.
In his application for work in the Flagler school district, he was asked if he’d ever been dismissed or asked to resign. He left that question blank, and did not explain, as asked, though he answered all 16 others. He also had an outstanding reference from the principal at Atlantic High and from others.
He was a favorite of Winnie Oden when she was the principal at Buddy Taylor Middle School and he was the assistant principal, earning perfect scores from her evaluations. Her predecessor, Nancy Willis, gave him “highly effective” marks, but also warned of his tendency to abuse his authority: “He is perceived as using his position in disagreements with school personnel.”
He got “highly effective” evaluations as assistant principal from then-principal Vernon Orndorff at Indian Trails Middle School. When he was elevated to principal there, Jacob Oliva, an assistant superintendent at the time, was tougher on him. Peacock fell short of the top category in such fields as organization, diversity, achievement gaps and “constructive conversations,” and got an overall “effective” rating. But when Oliva became the superintendent and Orndorff, as Peacock’s direct supervisor, took over the evaluations, the marks were back up to “highly effective” year after year, and stayed there when Earl Johnson, who subsequently filled Oerndorff’s post, became the evaluator.
In 2017, Jearlyn Dennie filed a complaint charging “unethical behavior from staff at ITMS or Flagler County schools,” including “retaliation” against her by Peacock and others, in matters involving the school’s problem solvers program. Peacock was first on her list of six school staffers she referred to.
Dennie had “reached a decision that she did not feel comfortable coming to Indian Trails’ campus and that for her mental health she had decided she would not come onto school grounds,” Gavin wrote in a statement reporting what Dennie had told Peacock’s and another assistant principal. A district investigation found “no evidence of retaliation or unethical behavior” toward Dennie, but did find “unwarranted behavior” towards her by Peacock.
Dennie, a partisan political operative in Flagler County and, in her words, an “advocate for parents and students of Flagler County for over a decade,” earlier this month made an angry appearance before the school board to demand better safety assurances from bullying for students on school buses (see the video at the 2:46:43 mark), and “to serve a warning,” which she did not specify.
At the beginning of the 2018 school year, a parent filed a complaint against Peacock when he was principal at Indian Trails Middle School. The parent had been concerned about SnapChats an instructional coach had sent the parent’s 12-year-old son, what she described as “a sexy picture”of the teacher’s face using a mouse ear snap chat filter.” The picture left the parent “in shock.” So did her interactions with Peacock, which she described as “very rude.”
According to the parent’s account, she told Peacock she wasn’t accusing the teacher of anything but was concerned. “Mr. Peacock then started screaming at me telling me [the teacher] would never do that and the picture was not a big deal and she is allowed to send pics and your son started sending her ‘streaks’ first,’” a claim the parent characterized as Peacock’s “lie #2,” because Peacock had told her he knew nothing about the whole issue when he first started speaking with her. She said Peacock then told her: “I’m done talking to you.”
“At this point I was disbelieving on how he was YELLING at me, blaming my 12 year old son,” the parent reported, and when she asked for an explanation about the picture, he said, according to her: “I don’t have to take demands from you and I don’t have to tell you why.” In an email later Peacock said her son had started the chain, and the teacher had responded. She complained to then Superintendent Jim Tager that Peacock was “not taking this seriously.” (See the available documentation here.)
Peacock investigated. He found that the “streak” went to the student and “a long list of other recipients including both current and former students” of the teacher (who was herself shocked that any concerns be raised about an image she said was made to portray a teddy bear, not anything suggestive), and while she was being interviewed by the investigator, she received another streak from the student in question. She then removed him from her list of contacts. The investigation found “no intent or occurrence of interacting inappropriately with the student.” (The teacher filed her own response, along with numerous statements of support from students disbelieving that any issue would be made of her use of social media interactions.) “No disciplinary action is appropriate in this case,” Peacock concluded.
An Internal Investigation
In late 2022, Peacock was the subject of another internal investigation after a teacher complained that he’d yelled at her over her request to have an air conditioning unit, broken for three weeks, fixed. The teacher had reported her students had been “miserable, some crying and others sweating while sitting still.” When she went to his office, she reported him starting the conversation by saying, jokingly: “I don’t know if I want your bad energy in my room.”
The teacher acknowledged that Peacock was making a reference to her bad luck of late, as she had just been in a car crash. But he approached her and her paraprofessional with a metal baseball bat. “I am aware this was not in threat to hurting us but I do believe that it was used as intimidation,” the teacher reported in her complaint. As he seemed not to address the substance of her complaint, she insisted, he got “aggressive and extremely annoyed” then pointed his finger at her to warn her off emailing anyone about the matter. After he ushered her out of the office, she heard the room burst in laughter behind her. “I was mortified and humiliated,” she wrote, and went to the nurse to have her blood pressure checked (it was 164/103 with a heart rate of 141).
The teacher’s colleagues encouraged her not to file a complaint, or she’d face retaliation. She’d never complained before, or filed any type of grievance. She did so in this case.
The investigation was conducted by Bob Ouellette, who conducted all internal investigations. As it was proceeding, Peacock emailed Assistant Superintendent Lashakia Moore, asking that Ouellette “cease and desist with retaliation and harassment due to my reporting of multiple violations.”
Peacock described Ouellette disrupting Wadsworth Elementary by coming in with a person Ouellette described as the director of human resources for an inquiry into the yelling allegation, which Peacock denied. He called the teacher “loud and demonstrative” and characterized her complaint as a “diatribe.” He noted at the bottom of the email that the message had been cc’d to Chiumento, Peacock’s attorney–possibly a message to its recipients that may put the teacher’s reference to the baseball bat in perspective.
The allegation that he’d yelled at the teacher was found to be unsubstantiated.
Peacock has filed a complaint against Ouellette, which means that the district’s internal investigator can no longer investigate issues involving Peacock.