The Flagler County School Board on March 5 interviewed four superintendent candidates in its search for a replacement for Jim Tager. Each 90-minute interview is reported separately. Video of each complete interview appears below the article. The school district is still taking public comments about the candidates. You may send your comments to school board members in the email box provided in the body of the article. Here are links to the three other interviews:
Janet Womack, a 2016 Alabama Superintendent of the Year and the second of four candidates the Flagler school board interviewed for superintendent today, spoke repeatedly of framing her leadership aims toward excellence: “What is the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, what will set us apart from the rest?”
Womack has been an education consultant in a Texas-based company for the past three years after seven years as superintendent in the Florence, Ala., district, “where 42 languages were spoken in our high schools.” She taught in elementary school, was a middle and high school principal and a director of instruction before her superintendent years. She spoke of innovation (“unleashing innovation” was one of her recurring presentations to various groups over the years), reliance on assessments and data–”constantly looking at data,” she said–and her self-described “impeccable communications kills” as some of the qualities she’d bring to the job in Flagler.
Womack used an example from her experience, with a gun incident, to explain how she informs the community and how she responds even to government misinformation: Alabama had passed an open-carry law, allowing individuals to carry guns openly. The law did not apply to schools and colleges and government facilities. But the way it had been marketed, many people thought they were free to carry anywhere, including schools, “which was not the intention of what was passed,” Womack said. There was a situation: a parent entered one of the schools with a weapon, and with baggage: the parent had some “issues that made the situation unstable.” The situation was dealt with (she did not explain how). But her point was to illustrate how she communicated the matter to the community: She texted all her media contacts to be in her office in 10 minutes to “get the right information out there” and do a call out that informed the community that the situation had been contained before anything happened.
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Her overriding focus? “Instruction, hands down,” she said. “I am an instructional leader to the core, and I believe it’s critical for the success of a district if your instructional program isn’t strong, then all your components of your district will suffer.” She’d use surveys to measure outcomes even though it’s not the most rigorous data: it measures students’ and staff’s sentiments about their job. State and “formative” assessment data would also reveal success or gaps in the classroom, “and where to coach with individual teachers, too.”
Womack was interviewed for 90 minutes after Vernon Orndorff, the former leadership development administrator who spent 12 years in the Flagler district. As with Orndorff, the board members read from prepared questions, with very few, if any, follow-ups.
Like Orndorff, Womack spoke in a distinct Southern drawl without notes but at a higher velocity, leaning forward, constantly gesturing for emphasis and providing long, bullet-point-like answers (her resume included three pages of single-spaced bullet-points), again and again returning to data-driven analysis: “I’m a data nerd, I’ll confess that right now,” she said, mixing nerdy analytical points with emphasis on her self-assurance and work ethic. “I’m an energizer bunny,” she said. “When it’s your passion, it’s not work, it’s a labor of love.”
“There’s nothing average about me in my leadership,” she said, and she wants her leaders to be “risk takers,” describing her responsibility as a leader with surprisingly self-aggrandizing biblical imagery: her role, she said, is “to part the waters” and let her leaders do the rest. (The biblical imagery was not incidental: Of religious organizations, she later said “we underutilize them because we don’t have process in place to immediately interject them into the lives of our students or our programs.”) She continued: “I am going to make sure I have a transparent and positive relationship with each of them,” she said. “They knew, they could text and call me any minute of any day or night.”
Her two top priorities for the Flagler district would be to “bring more specificity to your strategic plan” (the strategic plan is the district’s set of goals). When she reads it, Womack said, she sees goals and action steps, many of them continuous, “but to what specificity? How do we know we’ve reached the goal for Flagler for that year?” A second focus area would be to close the gap between achievement levels within “subpopulation of students,” such as ESE and black students. She sees great strides in the district in graduation rates and accountability, “but at the same time,” she said, the district should be “making sure we are really realizing the full potential of every student and pushing them further and harder than they’ve ever pushed before,” including students who perform at a higher level.”
Not unlike many education leaders, Womack could speak in platitudes (“the only way to lead is to lead together,” “I don’t play to lose in anything, I play to win, I believe if you’re not moving forward, you’re sitting still or your moving backward”), but also seemed at times to run into what she’d said moments earlier: “I believe in being strategic in everything that I do as a district. My vision for this district is to mirror the words that you have in your strategic plan.”
In business and finance, there’s “never enough money,” she said, pre-empting the first question on the subject by Board member Trevor Tucker. Often the legislature has good intentions in how it appropriates money to districts, but it handcuffs them by narrowly categorizing money, limiting flexibility in districts’ uses. She did not provide ideas on how to get around that, but explained how she’d handle limited resources locally: “If you’re bringing me something and you’re putting it on your list for the budget, you have to justify why you need that,” she said–an approach not unfamiliar to any budgeting process.
If Womack is a “data nerd,” she is also fond of the word “extraordinary,” wanting to set bars high for students and staff. “But at the same time we want to make sure we give each school autonomy,” she said, as every school “has unique needs, and the leadership of each school have different talents to realize that success in different ways.”
On the renewal of the half-penny sales tax in 2022, the tax that funds the Flagler district’s technology initiatives, Womack said that when she took over as superintendent in 2010, the economy was coming off the Great Recession. Any district was “almost operating in a deficit,” she said. She said she had to secure a half-cent tax referendum as well. She said she’s been part of a tax referendum that passed, and one that failed. The failure was due to the district not explaining specifically “what would be in jeopardy” if it failed. “It hinges on communication,” Womack said. ”I think it hinges on spending an incredible amount of time with a very high-level marketing campaign, and you have to treat that in many ways as a business, but you have to put the face of students on it.” If Flagler’s campaign is in two years, “you can’t wait to start. You have to insert these communications with the community.”
Womack’s answering style was far more discursive than Orndorff’s: she used up her entire 90 minutes before the board members had the chance to ask all the questions. The board members opted to reserve some of their questions to their one-on-one interview with Womack Friday. (Three board members will interview each of the candidates separately, behind closed doors. Dance conducted those interviews Wednesday.)
Womack said that while she’s not worked in Florida before, she has networked with education officials in the state. She said she’s “been through and weathered many, many storms,” whether through legislative issues or in community safety situations. “I love leadership, and I feel like I have many, many years to offer this district, so that together we can continue that trajectory of success, and there will be nothing about our time together that will be average in any way. We will excel together.”
Womack said in her closing she was not looking to be a temporary superintendent then “exit and go somewhere else.” She spoke with her husband in the room, describing themselves as soon-to-be empty nesters, looking for places that have “incredible quality of life with incredible communities.”
That sounded oddly like a statement Gerald Wilson, a superintendent candidate three years ago, made in the same seat during his interview: “As I think about what do I do and why do I want to come to Flagler County, my wife and I have moved several times, and what she’s expressed to me is, I don’t want to keep moving.” He conceded at the time that to apply for that reason was “a bit unusual.”
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