Flagler County’s Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council is a 22-member board consisting of district and school administrators, teachers, parents and guardians committed to improving exceptional student education in Flagler Schools and making Flagler County more inclusive for students with disabilities. The board is an advisory arm to the district. On March 31, Board Chair Stephen Furnari signed and sent the following letter to School Board members. The letter is presented here as submitted.
On Tuesday, the School Board is to review its evaluations of Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt, who is nearing the end of her three-year contract. The board will vote at a 5:30 p.m. meeting on whether or how to renew the contract.
The parent-members of Flagler Schools’ ESE Parent Advisory Council (or EPAC) voted unanimously to write this letter in support of the renewal or extension of Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract.
Speciﬁcally, we make this recommendation based on (1) the promises made, and kept, by Ms. Mittelstadt to the ESE community, and (2) to maintain much needed stability for all students, in particular those receiving ESE services.
Promises Made and Kept
In the two years prior to the previous superintendent search, there were several high proﬁle abuse incidents involving District staﬀ and students with disabilities. For several years, ending the abuse of students with disabilities in school became EPAC’s singular focus.
These abuse incidents took EPAC away from its core mission of improving ESE in Flagler Schools and making our community a more inclusive environment for Students with disabilities.
After many months of research, we determined that, with respect to many of the abuse incidents, there were staﬀ members who witnessed these incidents, knew it was wrong, and did nothing about it out of fear of retaliation. For years, staﬀ members witnessed their peers get demoted, lose jobs and be blackballed from the teaching profession by vindictive administrators.
This “culture of retaliation” was encouraged (or was intentionally ignored) by the highest ranking members of District administration. And it resulted in students with disabilities being abused and injured.
In 2019, during the most recent superintendent search, EPAC took a very proactive role in vetting candidates for those who would be most friendly to ESE and EPAC’s mission. To us, it was imperative that any new superintendent make a commitment to the ESE community to continue, and improve upon, gains made by the previous administration, and to end the abuse of ESE students and the culture of retaliation in Flagler Schools.
During the recruiting process, Ms. Mittelstadt explicitly promised EPAC that improving ESE would be one of her focuses, and that retaliation against staﬀ members by administration and the abuse of ESE students would not be tolerated.
Ms. Mittelstadt kept her promises.
Just recently, the EPAC board reﬂected on the fact that no time was spent during the 2021-22 school year addressing abuse incidents. As a result, EPAC had more time to focus on our core mission and we greatly accelerated our positive accomplishments.
Ms. Mittelstadt has assembled the most proactive team of ESE administrators that Flagler Schools has ever seen. ESE Director, Dr. Kimberli Halliday, and Assistant Superintendent, LaShakia Moore, have made dramatic improvements to staﬀ training, educational gains for students with disabilities, communicating with all ESE stakeholders, and reinforcing the Superintendent’s message that retaliation against staﬀ members and the abuse of ESE students will not be tolerated.
In this Uncertain Time, Flagler Schools Needs Consistency and Stability to be Successful
In recent years, Flagler Schools has had four ESE Directors, three Assistant Superintendents and three Superintendents, each with their own vision for the District. Speciﬁcally with respect to ESE, each such change stalled progress made by previous administrators, and delayed overall improvements to the ESE program. In the end, the students suﬀered.
The past three years have been some of the most challenging, and unstable, for educational institutions and their stakeholders in a lifetime.
Ms. Mittelstadt has keenly navigated the District through these perilous years and still managed to make positive gains for our students. She ﬁnally seems to have the right people in the right seats, something that will take a new Superintendent a year (or more) to ﬁgure out. The District’s new Strategic Plan has only been in place for one year and not enough time has passed to determine whether there’s been any meaningful results.
Flagler Schools is not perfect. ESE is not perfect. There is room for improvement and much work to be done. However, EPAC believes that the best prospect for achieving success in ESE and the District as a whole is by maintaining stability with existing leadership.
A Note to School Board Members Entertaining a Change in Superintendent: Be Careful What You Wish For
For those school board members who have not yet directly been involved in a superintendent search and are entertaining a change, we encourage you to have frank conversations with other stakeholders about the divisiveness that tends to come with the process, the inevitable instability that will follow the transition to a new superintendent (and possibly an interim Superintendent), and the negative impact this will have on students and your constituents, especially after having gone through a contentious search just three years ago.
No leader is perfect, we’re sure Ms. Mittelstadt will attest to this. However, with Ms. Mittelstadt, you know for certain that the District will get integrity, persistence and a dedication to data driven results. With someone new, you’ll get lots of promises – that may or may not be fulﬁlled.
Practically speaking, we posit that School Board members have the most leverage to eﬀect positive outcomes for students – and their constituents – by preserving the stability of leadership, but negotiating conditions and mandatory milestones into a new contract.
For these reasons, the members of EPAC strongly encourage the School Board to renew or extend Ms. Mittelstadt’s contract to aﬀord her the opportunity to see meaningful results from the recent changes she has made.
We thank you in advance for your consideration.