The Flagler County School Board rebuffed an attempt by two of its members to fire long-time in-house attorney Kristy Gavin, and renewed her contract for three years on a 3-2 vote this evening. School Board Chairman Trevor Tucke joined members Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro to rebuff an attempt by fellow-Board members Janet McDonald and Jill Woolbright to fire Gavin.
McDonald had been angling to fire Gavin for months. Woolbright’s turn against Gavin was more recent: just four months ago she’d given Gavin an excellent evaluation. But Woolbright, remarkably, went on to blame the good evaluation on Gavin, claiming she and Gavin had completed it together, and that in the end it was mostly Gavin’s words.
With the exception of McDonald’s last one (McDonald has been on the board seven years, and had no issues with Gavin previously) Gavin’s evaluations have been very positive. The board also receives quarterly reports Gavin completes about her work.
Several months ago, after a raucous school board meeting Gavin briefly recessed, McDonald attempted to call a meeting to fire the attorney. She has since sought to have her contract reviewed. Woolbright took issue with Gavin after the manner in which Woolbright’s attempt to ban four books came to light (three of the books were returned to the library shelves, a fourth is temporarily banned, but appears headed back to the libraries, too. Woolbright had falsely called the book “criminal” to be in circulation).
On Nov. 29, Michael Arnold, who has on occasion spoken before the Palm Coast City Council to complain about or challenge one item or another, often in language as overheated about the item in question as it is inflated about his own credentials, filed a vague complaint against Gavin. He claimed she’d “failed” as a member of the Bar and as “acting [sic.] legal council [sic.] for Flagler Schools,” and alleged she had “failed to advise” Woolbright or “act in good faith.”
“We don’t want her here. We want you to find someone else,” Arnold said this evening, addressing the board. “Please believe me. My Rolodex is very very big and it does include legal recruiters. My buddy works right there in Times Square right above the Bubba Gump Shrimp building, he’s a massive legal recruiter all over the nation.” Arnold claims he comes from “the number one recruiting industry in the world,” threatened a class-action suit against the board, and said he has “never lost in the courtroom.” He’s used similarly serrated language at the council, where he’s offended several officials, though with no appearance of follow-up.
The board had a difficult time figuring out whether Gavin’s contract was even on this evening’s meeting agenda when it first discussed it at a workshop earlier this afternoon. (See the contract as renewed in 2019 here.) It eventually figured out that the item would be on the evening agenda.
“We had quite a long discussion,” McDonald said, referring to the workshop debate, when Gavin came under withering–but vague–criticism from Woolbright and McDonald, who replayed issues repeatedly reported over the last few months. McDonald claimed, without evidence, that “people in the community have voiced request to find different counsel.” She called for Gavin’s firing by way of non-renewal of her contract. “There is a lack of confidence on the part of some of the board members,” she said.
Woolbright echoed McDonald, “although I think she has served the district well,” but not in the last four months, she said. She cited “missteps,” and counsel from people in the community objecting to Gavin–again, not naming anyone. Gavin is not without her opponents among the public, but judging from those who have spoken against her–including the few who did tonight–their numbers are few, and they are the same individuals who were outraged at Gavin’s role as parliamentarian at previous, unruly meetings.
“This is nothing more than a witch hunt,” Board member Cheryl Massaro said, crediting Gavin for her enormous capacity for work–and meeting her workload. She cited her numerous evaluations, and said, for that reason, she supported the extension.
Board member Colleen Conklin echoed Massaro. “I think this is the case of sometimes you don’t like what the messenger has to say, but her job is to deliver some of that information.” Likewise, Conklin said, she has heard about concern about “what’s happening with Kristy,” seeing her transformed into a “target.”
“And this is a person’s 18 year career,” Massaro said. “I don’t know anybody in this room that would have a good career for 18 years and maybe have some hiccups and then be told that they should be terminated. I’m sorry, that’s where it crossed the line.”
Gavin sat stone-faced during that segment of the discussion, looking at her computer screen. At the workshop, however, she had spoken in her defense. “I have not, to my knowledge, refused to provide any assistance to any department head, to any chief,” Gavin said, addressing one of the criticisms. “I have made phone calls back to them in a timely manner. And if you know of otherwise, that has not been brought to my attention, and they never told me. I was here until 6 p.m. Last night with my legal assistant to ensure that students services had the information that they needed in order to handle a matter that they were handling. They were leaving to go to a training and would be out of office. So I was here with my legal assistant to ensure that they received the appropriate guidance they needed in that specific situation. I don’t know what areas that you believe I have been deficient. But I believe in accordance with my contract, I have lived to the letter of my contract.”
Tucker did not address the matter when he called for the vote. He’d left his colleagues wondering how he would vote after the workshop, when he could have tipped his hand. He didn’t do so–until the actual vote, when he simply voted with the majority, and moved on.
The board at the workshop had discussed the contract, but also how to handle the Arnold complaint.
“We don’t have anything in procedures set forth in policy that’s clear that says how we go about this,” Tucker said. He said it might warrant an outside investigation, but he’s not comfortable with seeking an independent investigation every time a complaint is filed. His preference was to have the board decide whether a complaint warrants investigation or not, giving the board a chance to dismiss the complaint summarily, as a judge would, when a complaint is clearly frivolous, or without merit (or politically motivated). The board has standing to make that determination, Tucker said–in answer to Woolbright’s question–the same way that principals have the authority to rule on the validity of a parent’s complaint.
But the procedure would be developed formally through the board’s manual. Tucker said the complaint should be more substantive than just a call for someone’s firing. He suggested a process that would include documentation of whatever the complainant is claiming. Other board members wanted to ensure the investigator would have no connection to the employees in question. Gavin noted that law firms typically conduct such investigations. (Palm Coast is a model: it recently contracted with a law firm to in investigate Council member Ed Danko over claims of his misconduct and rudeness. But Palm Coast did not have a policy on the matter.)
“No one has a policy with respect to this type of issue,” Gavin said. “Frankly, no one actually has procedures with respect to this type of issue.” Gavin did not speculate as to why.
But the absence of such policies or procedures reflects the absence of need for such policies and procedures–until the seismic upending of conventions overtaking local governments in recent years: government opponents who had previously zeroed in on elected officials are now zeroing in on administrative positions, if they consider those positions to be at variance with their ideological stance. The shift is a reflection of a perception of administrative duties as having to abide by certain orthodoxies, rather than any particular change–or misconduct–by individuals fulfilling those administrative duties. In that sense, the shift is another illustration of the politicization of administrative ranks, potentially breaking down a firewall that had stood for decades. For now, however, a bare majority of the school board said: not here.