Flagler County School Board member Sally Hunt does not seem to be enjoying her job. At least not the fun parts, the parts that give district teachers, employees and students a chance to showcase their accomplishments, the parts that give the community a voice through proclamations. They just drag on too long, and maybe they shouldn’t be part of the “business” portion of the meetings, Hunt told her colleagues at a workshop earlier this week, as she spoke from an undisclosed location, phoning it in.
“Something that I just would like for my fellow board members to think about just for the sake of our parents and community,” she started, using a preface she’s often used before–“for the sake of our parents and community”–as cover for a concern of hers more than anybody else: “We’ve got some business meetings where our kind of intro is taking up to, like, 45 minutes. So by the time we read proclamations, by the time we maybe have different spotlights like from the [Education] Foundation, we can be at, like, 6:45.”
She seemed to suggest that the proclamations and public comments would take place at 6, but that the board meeting itself, which she was seeing as distinct from the spotlights, would start at 6:30. She referred to the “working mom” waiting to see her kids who rushes over to the Government Services Building by 6 for whatever reason, “and now it’s already 6:45, the meeting is just now really starting, and then several minutes later for public comments.” (Hunt and her colleagues were meeting in a so-called “retreat” to discuss board procedures with their new, interim attorney. The meeting was not streamed, as all other workshops are, but was recorded.)
Hunt has developed an odd, distant relationship with constituents. She does not respond to her emails and does not show up at major district celebrations like graduations and Teacher of the Year galas. Earlier this month she complained that members of the public are not following the “chain of command” when they have a complaint, and are soliciting board members’ help when they should first bother someone else with their concerns, like a teacher or a school principal or administrator. (See: “School Board’s Sally Hunt Would Like You To Follow ‘Chain of Command’ Before You Contact Her.”) She herself does not seem to want to be bothered with any of it, and now seems bothered by the length of meetings–especially the portion dedicated exclusively to good, happy news.
“We’re just starting to have, like, multiple proclamations, multiple spotlights,” Hunt complained, “where at the end of the day it’s at least my opinion that that board meeting is in large part there for a working meeting for us, but then also for the community to come out and speak to different things that will be voted on.”
The last board meeting, on Jan. 23, featured a proclamation by the august John Winston–a co-founder, with Jim Guines, of the district’s African American Mentor Program, during the era of Superintendent Bill Delbrugge–on Black History Month: “Ladies and gentleman it is an honor that we take this opportunity to thank all of you for allowing us to work these many, many years that we have successfully completed the assignment you gave us to make a difference in the Flagler school district,” Winston told the board after reading the proclamation. Another proclamation recognized Career and Technical Education Month in a state where nearly 1.2 million students are enrolled in career and technical education–800 of them in Flagler County. And a third item in that segment of the meeting was a resolution recognizing February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
That was followed by spotlights on the superintendent’s goals, on the Education Foundation’s events (the foundation is the non-profit support arm of the district), such as its Feb. 13 Mardi Gras fund-raiser, an a recognition of the district’s Sunshine State Scholars, who focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.
Spotlights typically jam the meeting chamber with their participants, at times resulting in standing-room-only meetings, at least for that beginning portion. The chamber empties rapidly after spotlights. Hunt’s colleagues tend to enjoy them, and were quick to brush off any suggestion that spotlights and proclamations should somehow be constrained, or segregated to a non-meeting portion of the proceedings.
“One of the best parts of our meetings are the spotlights,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. “I actually do look at it as part of the business meeting. That’s an opportunity to showcase really some of the great things that are going on in the school district, to the community. Sometimes, when we have a packed room, sometimes I think we should do this at the end of the meeting, with everybody here all night long so they would see what’s going on.
Will Furry, the current chair of the board, said the agenda as published gives the public the ability to gauge what would be happening at each meeting. “They could govern their time on their own based on that information,” Furry said. “Yes, we are there for business, but there are some ceremonial parts of this role. And although we do want to get our business done as efficiently as possible, those recognitions and proclamations really are important to a lot of people in our community.”
Even Board member Christy Chong–not exactly the most joyful or eager member to serve on the school board–was put off by Hunt’s suggestion. “I do think it’s important that we are celebrating things and be, like you said, giving the community a voice on these proclamations in the beginning,” Chong said.
“That is a balancing act every district deals with,” David Delaney, the board’s interim attorney, said of spotlights, acknowledging that it’s easy to get jaded when one has nothing to do with the person or people being spotlighted. Then even he took a side. “I will say in defense of those, I got called or I attended a board meeting when I was in high school for a spotlight thing, and I still remember that event. So I do try to remember the impact that we’re having on people that are being recognized.”
There was more interest in revisiting the mechanics of public comment periods. The board has two segments for public comments. The segment at the beginning of the meeting restricts comments to items on the agenda. The one at the tail end of the meeting is open to any topics. Some members of the public are not thrilled about having to wade through an entire board meeting before they get a chance to speak. By then the chamber is often mostly empty, the board members are tired–they’d have sat through meetings since 1 p.m., sometimes even longer–and attention is on the clock.
It wasn’t always like that, as Conklin noted: the opening segment used to be unrestricted. But board members changed that precisely to reduce chances that members of the public would use it to speak their mind on any topic they chose, figuring that most people would not stick around until the end of the meeting. In other words, for all the board’s celebrations of spotlights, proclamations and community spirit, it was a tactical decision to silence a large number of people interested in addressing less chest-beating issues.