Janet Valentine isn’t in an enviable position. No one having to fill Bill Delbrugge’s shoes would be. On Thursday, the Flagler County school district, its 1,200 employees, $266 million budget and incalculable headaches in a year of viral crises became all Valentine’s. Among those headaches she’ll have to deal with, unfairly, is not being Bill, though that’s the least of her concerns. Delbrugge, who picked Valentine as his deputy four years ago, will tell you that one of the first things to know about Valentine is that she’s not about ego. “She’s so comfortable with herself,” he says. In that regard, there’s no difference between her and Delbrugge.
But the differences are there. Delbrugge is first to say that management of the district will be more structured, more formal. The pace around the superintendent will be less frenetic. Delbrugge was a bullet train in a state that has yet to be ready for a bullet train. Valentine is the more gradual commuter train: it’s not as fast or glamorous, it stops at every station, but it lets more people get on and off between destinations. Idealism, in other words, is giving way to the immediately possible and necessary.
That’s not to say that Valentine’s job will be made any easier by the difference in style.
The outgoing school superintendent is the most popular public figure Flagler County has known for the decade or so he’s been here: teachers and other school employees, administrators, school board members, the business class–they all line up to praise him or have a piece of him, crediting him for making the school district uniquely progressive while keeping it financially stable and on seamless terms with local governments and agencies around it. Like a medieval Japanese emperor with a dozen doubles, Delbrugge seemed to be everywhere all the time, a rapid-deployment force of one always primed for an inspirational lift to whomever needed it, always churning out ideas or solutions to problems at a clip that created its own brand of problems for those around him: his ideas, like his high expectations, could race ahead faster than his staff’s ability to implement them.
Board Chairwoman Evie Shellenberger put it this way: “Bill is just an outgoing people person, and he will tell you, he doesn’t live a normal lifestyle, he doesn’t go home at normal hours and that type of thing. He’s the first to admit it. He doesn’t live in reality is the way he put it to me, but he’s been so good for this district.”
Valentine is more deliberative. She’s not into innovation as much as implementation, especially now. She won’t have her hands in everything. She’ll delegate. “I’m probably more collaborative in the way I manage and make decisions,” she says. “In this economy, we need consistency and stability, and I think that’s what I can offer.”
The school board chose Valentine primarily to ensure continuity and stability at a time when the school district will be facing the loss of $6 to $8 million in federal, state and local revenue. The coming school year is taken care of: the district built a $7.2 million reserve it’s prepared to use to ward off lay-offs and prevent cuts in programs. But a serious drop in state revenue halfway through the year (from a drop in sales taxes or a return to recession, for example), or an expensive new contract with teachers, could wipe out those reserves fast, leaving the district with little choice but cuts in the 2011-12 school-year.
“Tough time. Tough time,” School Board member Colleen Conklin says. “The benefit I would say to it being her that steps into those shoes is the folks that are being asked to cut their budgets and to trim their budgets have a personal relationship with her, and a level of respect that she has, that somebody brand new wouldn’t have had. So yeah, it’s a tough time for anybody to come into that position, but she’s got that personal ability and relationship with staff and that level of trust is just really critical.”
But board members have no illusions about the difference in style. One of those differences is the two superintendents’ personal involvement with the community. Delbrugge in 2005 was hired to replace Bob Corley, whose tenure was not good on many levels. One of the problems was Corley’s connection with the community. It wasn’t there. The school district’s voice and presence was absent from community boards and civic associations. Delbrugge filled that gap instinctively. That wouldn’t be one of Valentine’s instinctive strengths, though that’s not to say that there’s anything there comparable to the Corley years: Valentine is immersed in the district; she just hasn’t developed the same immersion with the community at large.
“If I had a concern, it would be the public relations portion and the community involvement,” board member Sue Dickinson said. Dickinson and Conklin are the longest-serving board members, going back to 2000. “I just don’t see–and it’s not a secret, everyone is aware–I don’t see how Janet is going to be able to keep up that energy level that Bill had within the district as well as within the community. We’ve all talked about this and she’s stated that she wishes to give it a little more time and see what happens. Personally, I’d like us to bring in a public relations person.”
Dickinson and fellow board member Andy Dance were on the dissenting side of a 3-2 vote when Valentine was picked to follow Delbrugge, though their opposition was not directed at Valentine so much as at the process. Dickinson and Dance wanted a national search. The remaining board members were ready to go with Valentine in a move similar to the quick decision that led to Delbrugge’s appointment in 2005. The day after the vote, Delbrugge recalled, both dissenters called Valentine to tell her they backed her, though not without some hesitancy on Dickinson’s part.
“If I had any hesistancy before, after participating in that three-day event I feel very confident that we are not going to be heading in the same direction because we obviously have a change in personality,” Dickinson said, referring to a three-day goal-setting retreat the district held for its board and managerial staff last month, “but Janet definitely has plans, goals for a direction in which to take us. Where Bill had involvements in all aspects, I think Janet is going to be aware of everything that’s going on but allow others to manager their departments.”
There’s also some questions about Valentine’s familiarity with the complete package of district issues. Her strength and background is curriculum. Delbrugge’s strength was finance. “Operations and facilities side,” Valentine said, “I’d say in general would be the parts I’d have to come up to speed with.” Mike Judd is the long-time director of those departments, but Judd just applied to be city manager in Flagler Beach, signaling an intention to move on. Without Judd and Delbrugge, the district would lose considerable institutional history and experience, making Valentine’s job much harder.
One of the things that’s made her job easier for the past three months is the transition she and Delbrugge devised. They literally shared an office, and little by little, Delbrugge gave up responsibilities, symbolically and literally. Early last month Valentine took her place at the dais, alongside board members during meetings, sending Delbrugge to the side where she’d sat with staff.
“It could not have been a better transition,” Valentine said.
“It’s going to be a very seamless transition of power and a transition of information, which is even more important,” Delbrugge said several weeks ago. “I wish every district could do what we’ve done–or every political office should do what we’ve done.” But not every team has what Delbrugge and Valentine had going for them–that absence of egos getting in the way.
That’s helped most in dealing with the at times weirdly excessive adulation surrounding Delbrugge. “I don’t think it’s affecting her personally at least not yet, and hopefully it won’t,” Shellenberger said. “It is going to be an unfair judgment that people will have of her and her ability because of the people that are going to want to see the same types of behavior, and that’s just not her. So that’s something I honestly think – and I have talked about it a little bit—she won’t let that kind of stuff get in her way, and hopefully the public and the parents and our own employees will give Janet the chance to do the job that she wants to do and can do. I think our employees will, because they’ve worked with her and they know her.”
On Tuesday, as Delbrugge was reclining at his desk one last time with a pile of stuff he’d packed up, Valentine’s desk across the way looked organized, neat, worked at: a superintendent in progress. The biggest object on the desk was a nearly foot-long carve-out of a single word: “BELIEVE.”