I miss the days not so long ago when the Flagler County School Board was the sleeper government in the county–uneventful, efficient, always collegial, often (with treasures of local governance like Trevor Tucker and Andy Dance) boring, as I think government boards should be. If they make news, they’re doing something wrong.
We can pinpoint the day when things started souring at the school board. It was when Janet McDonald abused her chairmanship to turn the opening of a board meeting into a prayer revival in August 2019. From then on, it was a quick spiral into hell as ideology replaced education. She either silenced or allowed LGBTQ students to be insulted. During Covid she turned her seat into a churn of disinformation and lies, and was soon joined by the equally poisonous and witch-hunting Jill Woolbright. Satan couldn’t be far behind.
Then came the follies over masks, vaccines and book bans, culminating, like declining Rome giving way to the Dark Ages, in the elections of Will Furry, Christy Chong and Sally Hunt. In a county not lacking for competition in that regard, the board became crazy central. None of it had to do with what was going on in schools (not until Bunnell’s segregated assembly, anyway). All of it has to do with these three board members.
If you think the appointment of LaShakia Moore will make a difference, think again. Moore’s biggest job will be to run interference to save what’s left of this district from the Huns, because the problem was never with the administration or the ranks. It’s with the majority of a board that doesn’t know its role, doesn’t know its limits, and doesn’t know education from flip-flops.
They lack curiosity for the nuts and bolts of district governance because it just doesn’t appeal to their Facebook subgroups. So they don’t do their homework. Furry just channels the conspiratorial alchemies of his harem of hysterics, with the likes of Woolbright or Alan Lowe making a teleprompter of his phone.
Chong has faint glimmers of the Tucker style in her: every once in a while she might surprise you with a deft question or observation, making you think: there is hope. But then, this board member who found a “safe space” sign objectionable and calls teen lit “porn” comes out with yet another howler, as she did the night the board voted in Moore, when she lent this analysis to the segregated assembly at Bunnell: “This is the unfortunate result of what happens when we try to go beyond teaching the foundations of education.” She then compared the assembly to “indoctrination.”
Whatever that horror show at Bunnell Elementary was, it was neither indoctrination nor a matter of going beyond the “foundations of education.” It was the end result of the state’s perverse imprisonment of teachers in testing standards and a dehumanized view of students as numbers in “subgroups.” Chong was elected on the strength of the endorsement by the guy behind those standards. Then again, I don’t think she knows what the word indoctrination means.
As for Hunt, our very own Manchurian candidate, what more can be said about a cringe-inducing narcissist who has no idea what she’s doing, is a no-show at most school events, and manages to commandeer meetings to her own pathetic grievances, as she did even the night the new superintendent was voted in? Her teasing and chronic flirtation with resigning notwithstanding, we appear to be stuck with that unwieldy intemperance for a few years yet.
It’s about to get worse. First, the only two sane members of the board, Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin, are in their last year. They’re not running again. They’re lame ducks, and they’re in the minority. You’ll see that consequence next November when the board elects Furry its chair, “this throne of illusions” (to borrow a phrase from Garcia-Marquez). I imagine his first act will be to appoint himself muezzin.
Second, the board members think a couple of “retreats” where they all join hands and sing kumbaya will fix what ails them. It’s the juvenile disorder this board has been suffering from for a few years. You don’t see other boards going into so-called retreats to do these things because for the most part they’re grown-ups, and patronizing “team-building” exercises in back rooms have nothing to do with public policy.
Nor do “retreats,” by the way, which have no legitimacy in Florida government. You either have business meetings or workshops. Some governments do goal-setting sessions they like to call “retreats.” But these mawkish, vaguely Leninist re-education “retreats” in half shadows from sunshine are emblematic of boards’ contempt for the public and for transparency. The board is not a “team.” It’s not a club. It’s five, independently elected members accountable to the electorate, not to each other.
But the board doesn’t see it that way. It sees itself as an undemocratic monolith that should speak with one voice, and when one of its members strays, that member should be punished. That’s what’s behind Hunt’s anger at Massaro for speaking her mind over the segregated assemblies, or hers and a couple of other board members’ hostility toward the press or any kind of message they don’t presume to control.
A few months ago they even debated having their PR office act like Pravda, issuing the official news of the board, hoping that would shut the rest of us up, until the board attorney reminded them that the scheme would only triple the amount of coverage, some of it inevitably embarrassing.
Of course, it’s that sort of advice that’s about to get the attorney fired. “I don’t know as I want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do,” J.P. Morgan once said. “I hire him to tell me how to do what I want to do.” Get ready for the board to go Morgan, Morgan & Morgan on us.
Moore was right when she told the board this week that “we’ve isolated ourselves from the community.” How different this board is from how it’d been for a decade and a half until 2019. But if this board’s behavior appears to be an alien phenomenon in this county’s history, it’s no longer unique in Florida. Since the governor decided to politicize school boards, they have repaid him in spades. Flagler’s version is only too ordinary.
Can Moore fix it? It’s not her job, though the board members are clearly burdening her with the task. And that, yet again, is why this hopeless board is clueless.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.