The Flagler County School Board on March 5 interviewed four superintendent candidates in its search for a replacement for Jim Tager. Each 90-minute interview is reported separately. Video of each complete interview appears below the article. The school district is still taking public comments about the candidates. You may send your comments to school board members in the email box provided in the body of the article. Here are links to the three other interviews:
Earl Johnson has been the executive director of leadership and operations for Flagler County schools–a position similar to that of deputy superintendent–for the past three years, after two years as principal at Matanzas High School and camp20 years as principal of schools in Volusia and Osceola counties. This afternoon, he was the fourth of four candidates interviewed by the Flagler County School Board as he vies to be the next superintendent in Flagler County, replacing Jim Tager, the man who appointed Johnson to his current position.
“My first and my most powerful strength that I have is passion,” Johnson, said. He’d not started his career in education. He didn’t say what he’d done, knowing that all four members knew it well: he was an NFL player for Detroit, Denver and New Orleans Between 1985 and 1988. “Once my previous career ended with a number of knee surgeries, I had the opportunity to become a math teacher,” he said, and he used the opportunity to get into college coaching.
“A coach at that time told me: Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. That steered him toward his “passion for students and student learning.” He was referring to James Kirton, the late principal at Seabreeze High School. When Johnson evoked Kirton’s name later in the interview he visibly choked up and had to pause to regain his composure. Kirton was one of several key mentors he said helped him grow as an educator, Tager being the latest one, he said.
Johnson is the first black candidate–the first minority candidate, for that matter–to make it this far in any superintendent-selection process in at least the last two decades. His is the only candidacy that has drawn vocal and ardent support at a previous board meeting, largely from the black community. It’s the only candidacy that appeared to draw in-person interest today from a half-dozen people attending his segment. Other interviews drew fewer people: the room was largely empty but for a handful of spectators, school staff and two reporters.
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Johnson’s candidacy also drew such criticism from the Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council that Johnson responded by threatening a lawsuit through his attorney. The council had also criticized the candidacy of Vernon Orndorff. Those issues were not directly part of the questions the school board members asked–questions read from lists presented them by the board’s Florida School Board Association consultants.
But Johnson was clearly aware that he had to overcome a barrier with the criticism from the ESE group, so he devoted different segments of his interview to speak of his intentions to address “the most vulnerable and needy students, and not forget all students.”
School Board Chairman Janet McDonald started each interview, asking among her questions what two priorities the candidate projected for his or her early tenure. Johnson was clearest, and strongest, handling that question, citing two priorities, neither of them mentioned by other candidates. They were surprising goals for their ambition and potential consequences.
Johnson first picked early learning, saying over 40 percent of students are not ready for kindergarten. VPK is offered for half a day at no cost. Parents must pay the balance for full-day programs. He said he will propose full-day free programs, with certified teachers, though those are costly: “That program can be paid for through grants, Title I, Title IV,” he said. Grant funding is usually uncertain and time-limited. Second, Johnson cited students with disabilities as a priority. He said those students are meeting standards only at a 17 percent rate. “Think about the growth we could make even if we address that,” he said.
He had distributed folders to the board members before his interview–the only candidate to do so–and pulled one sheet from the folder to describe through metaphorical pictures how he would “remove the systemic barriers that our students have with disabilities, the barriers such as, teachers are not able to plan” (a single teacher is responsible for 60 students’ individual education plans, or IEPs, he said). He said teachers should have more time to devote to their IEPs, and administrators should provide the appropriate level of professional learning for teachers, administrators and support staff to “remove those barriers.” But again, the goals were more like wishes than concrete plans that could be paid for, either with dollars, time or additional personnel.
Board member Andy Dance returned to Johnson’s startling assertions about VPK: “You’re making a significant change in my opinion that is for the better. The third button–are you exploring VPK or are you going to do it?” Dance asked him.
“I am going to do it, but I’m going to have the approval of the board,” Johnson said.
“Then be intentional with it,” Dance said. “The first thing you said after you sat down you said, passion, so if we buy into the passion and the community buys into the passion, be intentional with what you’re planning.” He added, “I don’t want you to be wishy-washy on that.”
Johnson’s plans for VPK and disabled students begged the question, not asked by the board members except indirectly by Dance: where were those plans in the past three years? (Later that evening, during the meet and greet session with all the candidates, Johnson, in his introductory remarks to an assembly of scores of residents, spoke of his VPK and disability-student programs as if he were campaigning for the two issues. But other candidates adopted the campaign tone as well: the occasion demanded it, as they were making their pitch to the largest group of residents they’d see before the board makes its decision.)
Dance then told Johnson explicitly, “so that there’s no doubt, explain and share your vision for ESE education in Flagler schools under your leadership.”
He said as superintendent it was important to have conversations and meet with “all stakeholders,” and specifically with the ESE group. He said there should be an opportunity to sit down, have a “candid conversation” and know what could be done together to meet all the needs of students. He said again that he would be willing to sit down with the ESE group. (Notably, the ESE group extended an invitation to Johnson on Feb. 26, and Johnson and the group were working toward a meeting in late March, according to the group’s chairman.)
In contrast with his colleagues, Dance–who is leaving the school board in November: he is running for a county commission seat–repeatedly asked the most pressing and off-script questions. He picked up on a question about work culture to ask Johnson about recent issues in the district involving workplace improprieties, such as sexual harassment: “What measures need to be taken to instill a different culture if there is–or how do you find if there is an existing culture that needs to be fixed?” Dance asked.
Johnson spoke of reading the public survey taken locally ahead of the superintendent application process, and noting various concerns. He said he would have “listening sessions” with all groups involved in the schools to “help drive how I will lead,” and to find out if there are work-culture issues, such as sexual harassment. He said he’d want to “mitigate” gaps in the culture, but didn’t offer specifics.
“How do we measure that going forward?” Dance pressed him.
“After we go through the process, there are surveys out there that we could do,” Johnson said, citing a “360-degree survey.”
Johnson had more difficulties defining how he would measure outcomes, whether related to financial issues, curriculum or workplace cultures, relying mostly on “listening sessions” and surveys. “We have to do surveys,” he said several times, particularly what he referred to as “360-degree” surveys, reverting–as all three other candidates have at one point or another in their interviews, to platitudes: “I will work countlessly to ensure that I build that bridge of continuous improvement and trust right here in Flagler County.” As a leader, he said he would be “visible, transparent and communicate to all stakeholders.”
Dance had not heard about those 360 surveys, and asked him about it. Johnson said “it’s looking at a person, so Earl John as superintendent of schools, I want to know from all who work with me,” he said. So teachers, staff, community members, administrators would all take a survey about “the perception that you have on how I am performing.” He then added to Dance: “Meet me in my office, I’ll show you.”
“Time is flying,” Dance then said, preparing for another set of questions to ask.
“It feels like that to you. Not to me,” Johnson said, eliciting laughter.
The question was about Johnson’s understanding of board-superintendent relations in enacting district goals. Johnson discussed the four pillars of the district’s goals, without explaining them–essentially telegraphing to the board that he knows it implicitly–and said they would be developed collaboratively, an answer that mirrored that of al previous candidates.
Board member Maria Barbosa asked him how he’d handle the appointment of new principals. Johnson said he would appoint a committee–parents from that school, faculty and staff, the human resources director, key administrators all seated–to be part of the hiring process. He recalled his own interviews in Flagler County mirroring that system, variations of which are, in fact, utilized in the district. The finalists would then be brought before the superintendent.
When conducting investigations into wrongdoing, Johnson said the district must follow due process defined by the district’s contacts with its unions. Johnson has gone through that process with some employees, he said, but he was not specific beyond repeated references to the “process.”
Regarding the half-penny sales tax, he said the school board will work with the superintendent to “move this referendum forward,” but he did not offer any specific strategy: He said the district did “a great job” in the past with the referendum, spoke of coming growth, and said past successes can be used to market the new referendum.
In his closing remarks, Johnson said the discussion points he’d put forward were his ongoing works: “I do not have to begin in June or July,” he said. “The plan I laid out for you, that is my job.”