A FlaglerLive Analysis
In a rare display of unanimity on the very subject that had divided it most–the superintendent’s position–the Flagler County School Board Tuesday approved a seven-month contract with LaShakia Moore, a fast-risen star in the district, as its interim superintendent.
It is the first time in the county’s history that a person of color has held the superintendent position–no small feat in a district with a checkered history of integration. The district had a long dispute with the Southern Poverty Law Center over racial discrimination that it settled in 2015. Less than two years ago board members no longer serving were objecting to references to the Black Lives Matter in curricular materials and refusing to denounce hate groups specifically. And the district is battling an ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit by a teacher at Indian Trails Middle School.
The question Moore isn’t yet answering is whether she will apply for the permanent position, which the board hopes to fill by Jan. 1. The board voted 3-2 last month to fire Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt (officially, not to renew her contract, which expires on June 30), citing only vague reasons and overlooking strong, but not stellar, evaluations.
Well before then those who had voted to push out Mittelstadt–including the local chamber of commerce–had rallied around Moore as an interim, even though Moore was elevated by Mittelstadt and is one of the reasons behind the successes of Mittelstadt’s administration.
Moore had been a teacher for 10 years in the district before then-Superintendent Jim Tager, who saw great leadership potential in her, appointed her principal at Rymfire Elementary in 2018. The following year, she was named Flagler County’s principal of the year, and soon rose to the district.
Mittelstadt had asked for an extension of six months so the board could have the full picture of testing results, expected this month and the next. That, in essence, is what the board is giving Moore: a six-month tenure that could just as equally been filled by Mittelstadt, had the board not been intent on wanting Mittelstadt out.
Moore is currently the assistant superintendent for academic services, earning a base salary of $115,121 a year. Starting July 1, she will retain her current responsibilities (the district is not hiring a replacement), and will add the interim title, for a salary of $150,000 on an annualized basis, or $12,500 a month.
Mittelstadt was hired three years ago on a base salary of $135,000 and is now making $146,000, not including additional perks. Moore, like Mittelstadt, will get a $700-a-month additional stipend for incidental job expenses, will have the use of a district vehicle, and will get a deferred-compensation benefit.
The interim contract, School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said, offers Moore “the ability if she so chooses to apply to be the superintendent if that is her interest, but if she chooses not to apply or if she is not selected, it guarantees that she would be able to move back into the Assistant Superintendent of Academics position at the conclusion of the interim superintendent timeframe.”
Moore would not keep either stipend or car use stipend when she returns to her former position. Her retirement benefit will rise for the time she serves as interim only.
Mittelstadt remains the superintendent until June 30, working with Moore. The slew of staff reappointments (or non-reappointments) that typically take place in June will be Mittelstadt’s responsibility. More than a few eyes will be trained on the fate of Paul peacock, the principal at Wadsworth Elementary, currently ordered on administrative leave, who is under internal investigation due to several employee complaints. (See: “Wadsworth Principal Paul Peacock Ordered on Leave Over Employee Complaints as District Hires Investigator.”)
Like all principals, Peacock is on a year-to-year contract. Mittelstadt would have to renew his contract if he is to return next year. (Peacock was in the state’s retirement program and would have been compelled to retire in two years but for a change in law that now gives him an additional three years on the job.)
Moore will not be evaluated by the school board during her interim period. That job will be carried out by the incoming superintendent, Gavin said. When Moore returns to her assistant superintendent position, her salary will fall back to what she was earning previously.
Moore had not responded to an emailed question about her intentions before this article initially published. But signals she’s sent to people around her suggest that she has not made up her mind about the longer term.
There are reasons for leeriness about a permanent superintendent position for any candidate, given the acidic and hyper-ideological tensions undercutting many school boards in the state, especially since Gov. Ron DeSantis chose to politicize school boards. (See: “Florida Gov. DeSantis leads a nationwide shift to politicizing school board races.”)
The governor has injected himself into local races with endorsements as he has not with county commissions or constitutional offices (on the Flagler school board, Will Furry and Christy Chong were DeSantis endorsements). He has pushed to return partisanship to school board elections, which are currently non-partisan. He is pushing to impose school board term limits, as he is not on county or constitutional offices. And he has made culture-war issues focused on school curriculums and book bans central to the run-up to his imminent announcement of a presidential run.
All of that has turned previously staid local school boards into bitterly politicized and riven arenas where issues and debates take unpredictable turns. Audiences can be as gladiatorial as school board members–on Tuesday, Flagler School Board member Sally Hunt said she did not feel safe in workshops at the district–and where education professionals find themselves forced to jitter on knife’s edges swinging at them from both ends: from school board members or from aggrieved constituents.
So the question may not be why would Moore not apply for the permanent position in a district as gladiatorial as any, but why would she want to? She has a child in middle school and family locally, so she is vested. But so was Mittelstadt, who has lived and owned property in the county for two decades, with her own family: local ties are not a buffer to mercurial boards.
Normally an interim assignment, like the one former Superintendents Bill Delbrugge and Jacob Oliva filled before getting the permanent appointments, gives the school board a chance at an extended job interview. The interim is under the microscope.
In this case, the roles are more likely to be reversed: Moore is a no-nonsense administrator who doesn’t brook distractions rom the mission or fuzzy thinking. (“Resistance usually stems from lack of clarity,” an austere sign reads in her austere office. “Don’t make assumptions, ask the questions,” reads another.) It is Moore who will be interviewing the school board to gauge whether she’d want to work with them in the long term. She’ll be doing so paradoxically aware of the way the same board treated and mis-treated her boss, while also endorsing her with unanimity, an immediate advantage her candidacy would benefit from. She already has the momentum of considerable community awareness, support and respect, and has the same from within the school district.
It is another rare combination the board has squander before, and will have trouble replicating with whatever left-over candidates will apply.
Left-over, because nearly a dozen superintendent positions were open in the state this year (the Escambia superintendent unexpectedly lost his job Tuesday evening in a Flagler-like dung show) as school boards continue to roil from the new, strange normal. The Flagler school board opted to delay its search a few months to ride out the wave of openings. So its choices by then may not be of the highest quality, further burnishing the gem-like potential in the interim.
The recruitment for the next superintendent is in the hands of the Florida School Board Association–the same recruiter who produced Tager and Mittlestadt: the association does find excellent candidates, but their ultimate fate is out of its hands. The board approved a $35,000 contract with the association for the search. The association’s Andrea Messina at a June 2 workshop will outline search options for the board–whether it wants to appoint a citizens advisory committee, as it has in the past, whether it wants a national or a statewide search, and so on. The agreement is in effect until next January.
The approval of Moore’s interim contract and the contract with the association were the last items on the board’s Tuesday agenda, where Mittelstadt spoke last, with the same grace she’s maintained through the last few months’ ordeal. “There’s still 10 days left for many of our students to finish there. And of course exams, final assessments going on in all of our schools. So I appreciate the comment earlier, finish strong,” Mittelstadt said, echoing something Cheryl Massaro, the board chair, had said. “So over the next two weeks of school, I’m just encourage everyone to continue to do their very best and then in two weeks we’re going to celebrate our high school seniors.”
The board had discussed the interim contract with Moore briefly during the afternoon workshop, and discussed it none at all during the evening session, except for a final remark by Board member Colleen Conklin: “Just thank you, LaShakia.” It was clear who was bailing out whom.