A divided Flagler County School Board has yet to decide whether and how to conduct invocations at the start of its meetings following Chairman Janet McDonald’s out-of-order introduction of a pastor and her invocation at the August meeting.
And McDonald continues to dispute the sequence of events that led to other board members being “taken aback,” in their words, by the pastor’s prayer, which was not part of the approved agenda. McDonald claims she had conversations about the invocation with the board attorney and asked for the invocation to be placed on the agenda. Attorney Kristy Gavin disagrees. So does Superintendent Jim Tager, who controls the agenda.
“We have to make a conscious effort to follow the procedures that we have and avoid issues like this,” School Board member Andy Dance said at a workshop last week. He had been among those “taken aback” by the invocation, and asked for a clarifying discussion about it. “This all could have been avoided if we had followed the proper procedures that we painstakingly went through to set up how we gauge appropriateness for our meetings by vetting them through our agenda review process.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” McDonald said. “I’d asked for it to be put on the agenda several times. The fact that it didn’t get put on, I’m sorry that it didn’t get put on.” McDonald also sought to “correct something” in the FlaglerLive report that she had not discussed that evening’s invocation with Gavin or Tager ahead of time. “I did run this past Attorney Gavin, just to make sure that it was all on the up and up and not jeopardizing the board or the district in any way,” McDonald said.
But if the item was to be on the agenda, Tager would have had to know and to clear it to be there. He did not. “I was not asked at any time to place an invocation on the agenda,” he said in an email this morning.
Gavin was interviewed after the August meeting specifically and repeatedly about McDonald’s actions before the meeting. Gavin said several times that she was not aware that the invocation would be part of that meeting. “We did not have a conversation,” Gavin said. “Again, If we would have had a conversation, the agenda would have listed it. We can put invocation on the agenda, if that’s the board’s pleasure.”
Today, Gavin said that “Ms. McDonald had asked me in summer whether invocations were permissible and I advised her that invocations and/or prayer is done in other districts and is possible and that it had been done in the past.” But, Gavin specified again, in direct contradiction to McDonald’s claim: “I did not receive a request to place the invocation on the agenda.”
Had the item been cleared for the agenda, other school board members would have known about it and been prepared for the way Jeanine Clontz, a pastor at Flagler Beach United Methodist Church, took the floor, offered a brief inspirational prayer, then made a pitch for her church–also a violation of board procedure, which forbids soliciting in any form.
Still, McDonald has persisted in asserting that in her view she had gotten clearance. “My only comment at the board workshop for the other SB members was that contrary to what was printed, I did have conversations with Atty Gavin about the practice and the ‘legality’ of doing an invocation and a request to have it on the agenda if needed,” she wrote in an email. She said she did not “fault” Gavin or FlaglerLive for what she called “the breakdown in communication or understanding,” adding: “My job is not to clarify nor correct your posting, nor research why it is different from what I lived.”
It’s still not clear how the school board will proceed. The school board used to have invocations, on and off, from the earlier part of the last century to the early 1970-s. It hasn’t had any since. At the workshop last week Dance and board member Trevor Tucker were opposed to changing that tradition. “I would prefer we stay with the way that we are running the meetings without reference to an invocation or a prayer,” Dance said.
McDonald said “it was important to do, to follow the lead of the Legislature and maybe bring back what Bunnell does.” Bunnell is the only local government which, since 2011, has taken to offering prayers before meetings, frequently by commissioners themselves–clearly a violation of law (though in recent months the commissioners have ceded the job to visiting pastors).
Board member Colleen Conklin, with Maria Barbosa echoing her approach, is not opposed to inspirational invocations or “thoughts of the day.” She is asking Gavin to research how other districts do such things, as several do, including the Duval school board.
In Duval, the agenda always carries an “invocation,” but the meeting doesn’t necessarily carry it out exactly as such. At its June meeting for example, Chairman Lori Hershey referred to it as “our opening message,” and ceded the floor to Rebecca Peterson, a pastor at Jacksonville’s non-denominational Rise Church.
“I don’t know what your beliefs are in God,” Peterson told the assembly. “I’m not here to push an agenda on you and certainly that’s not what we do when we step into our schools, we’re not there to push an agenda. We are there to bring an encouraging word because we think that encouragement and kindness can go a long way.” Then she said, “and I hope it’s OK if I pray before we do the pledge.” She prayed for wisdom and blessings for the board in a 22-second prayer.
At the following meeting, in July, there was no invocation. There was a thought of the day by Ann Murphy, a 10-year-old at Loretto Elementary who summed up her young life and spoke about a neighbor she had long considered to be her “second mom,” who took her out on each of her birthdays. But the neighbor moved away. But her own mom then volunteered to take her on dates as well, which pleased her. “So my thought of the day is, take time off to spend with a child. Thank you,” Murphy said.
Duval’s August meeting was a full-blown, three minute long Christian invocation by Ted Corley, a retired pastor who’d led Day of Prayer events at other municipal gatherings. His prayer was focused on board members, school staff and students.
Gavin said the Flagler school board can take the invocation approach as long as it is strictly non-discriminatory. “It could be Christian, it could be Judeo–, it could be Muslim, it could be non-sectarian, it could be atheist,” Gavin said. “That actually has been identified to be a religion, freedom from religion has been identified to be a religion, believe it or not, by the Supreme Court. So, with that said, as long as you are not singling out or identifying or proselytizing, then you’re OK. Once you dive into a proselytization, now you start getting into trouble.”
McDonald then framed the possibility of invocations as “spotlights” of various faith-based or social service agencies that work with schools. “Anything that’s out there that does something for students to advance their time of connection and well-being I think would be a nice thing for us to do,” she said.
“Well, spotlight is different than an invocation. A spotlight is just highlighting what they’re doing,” Dance said, stressing that the mechanism was already in place.
Still, McDonald pushed the idea of an invocation as well. “Obviously it’s not something that you’re comfortable with, and I appreciate your openness finding out what other districts do do,” she told Dance.
The board right now is taking Conklin’s approach. “What I’m hearing is not a straight prayer,” Conklin said, seeing nothing objectionable to the pastor’s prayer at the August meeting. “It was very universal,” she said, though she made a distinction between the prayer and the more commercial pitch that followed, a pitch Conklin said was not appropriate. “Having someone from Kiwanis come to give the thought of the day to me is not a problem. To have someone come, whether it’s a rabbi or pastor, provide a thought of the day or an invocation that is universal, I don’t see the harm in that. So I’m open, I’m curious to see what other districts are doing in that area.”
Gavin will gather evidence and present it yet again at a board workshop in a month. It’s not clear what sort of invocation, thought of the day, moment of silence or what surprise might be in store at the top of the school board meeting scheduled for Oct. 15.