On September 9, the Flagler County School Board Board held a day-long workshop it called a “retreat” to conduct the “Master Board” program, an exercise designed to train school boards and their superintendent in governance and effectiveness. The program is designed by the Florida School Board Association. The Flagler session was led by April Griffin, a leadership services consultant with the FSBA.
The Flagler board is fractured. It’s been experiencing tense, contentious meetings and at times bitter internal disagreements. Tensions spilled into the open at the session, held in a third-floor conference room at the Government Services Building, in the presence of Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt and Board Attorney Kristy Gavin. The session was open to the public and was only lightly attended though at one point the school board attorney and two board members attempted to bar a reporter and others from recording the meeting. The reporter did not comply. The prohibition would have violated Florida’s open-meetings law.
This is the first of two articles on the retreat. See the second, “Flagler School Board’s ‘Retreat’ Unravels in Rancor and Accusations as Deep Dysfunction Is Laid Bare.”
Flagler County School Board member Janet McDonald, who has often used her seat on the board to peddle false and misleading information or attempt irregular, unapproved maneuvers, claimed earlier this month at a school board retreat–falsely–that a member of the audience charged the dais and threatened her with death, and that the school board, the attorney or the police did nothing.
McDonald, speaking heatedly at a Sept. 9 “retreat” of the school board, accused Randy Bertrand, the parent of a student in the district who often addressed the school board between 2019 and 2021, and who briefly ran for the board, of making the death threat. Bertrand denies it. A video recording of the incident shows McDonald to have fabricated much of how she described the incident at the Sept. 9 workshop. (See the video segment at the foot of the article.)
The issue arose early in the session as the moderator, April Griffin, a consultant with the Florida School Board Association, was urging the board members to turn off Facebook for a month. “Leave all the noise and focus on what’s best for the kids. Not only their health and safety, but their achievement.” Griffin then said she wanted to talk about “civility.”
“I watched your last meeting,” she told the board, referring to the Aug. 17 meting.
“God bless you,” Janet McDonald said.
“I don’t know how long your recess was. But if it was 30 minutes, an hour, that’s an hour of time in your lives that you’re not doing your job. And you let them hijack you,” Griffin went on. She added: “Your parliamentarian, is your attorney. When she says we’re in recess, because the crowd is unruly, that means you’re in recess. And I’m sorry, I’m going to say this: Go away. Go back in the back. Let everything calm down. I’m not saying names, but you know, you didn’t accomplish anything by staying out front except for to keep people riled up.”
The names she had in mind were McDonald’s and Board member Jill Woolbright’s.
“Now, you can shake your head. Perspective is reality, OK?” Griffin went on. “My perspective was what I saw from that video. So that’s my reality. I already said I didn’t live it. But what I did see was that a unified board was not present. And before we go into civility, I want to know: Do you want to learn and work together?”
“Absolutely,” McDonald said. She was the only one who spoke up–the one who had riled up the crowd most that evening, the one who has undermined the board’s cohesion most, who has circumvented the board’s rules most over the years, and who did so again at the Aug. 17 meeting when she refused to comply with a deputy’s admonitions to go to a rear room.
She presented her alternate reality again to Griffin, claiming that “the board is to blame” for the meeting going off the rails, “leaving the responsibility solely on Kristie,” meaning Kristy Gavin, the board’s attorney. But that was inaccurate: as Griffin had stated, it was Gavin’s responsibility to act as the parliamentarian. Gavin herself said that as in the past, if a parliamentarian or the board chair has called for recess, we’ve gone into recess.”
It was then that, as she was being corrected, McDonald made the claim about Bertrand.
“But when I was threatened with death from Randy Bertrand, and he charged the dais, nothing was done. We did not recess. We calmed down, we stayed there, and the crowd calmed down,” McDonald said.
“I don’t recall you ever being threatened,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said. Nor has McDonald mentioned the alleged incident since.
“He charged the stage, and he said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Got up out of his seat and charged the dais,” McDonald claimed. “I was chair at the time. Colleen, I don’t care if you remember. I do. I viscerally remember, and yet nothing was done. There was no police report. There was no action, no, no recess, no clear the building. That was one person, and an angry crowd because of a policy, a word to be added to our policies.”
“Did anybody else hear you being threatened?” Conklin asked. Tucker was the only other board member on the panel at the time. He said it was a long time ago.
“You can’t dismiss the way that that made Janet feel,” Griffin said of McDonald’s interpretation. “You can’t dismiss that, because that is her reality.”
“And if everybody watches the tape, it’s not going to be just Janet’s reality,” McDonald said. “ I get his emotions, I get his reaction. I did not file any complaints. I did not clear the room, we just let the room calm down. So the meeting could continue.”
In fact, based on the video McDonald is referring to, nothing of the sort that McDonald described took place, and the meeting was recessed–by Gavin.
The meeting McDonald is referring to was the evening of June 16, 2020. It was the first meeting with Cathy Mittelstadt in the superintendent’s chair. Jack Petocz, a Flagler Palm Coast High School student, was the last speaker in the public comment segment. Some 40 minutes intro the meeting, Petocz had begun to speak about “hatred towards minority groups has become increasingly commonplace throughout our world.”
Petocz blamed the Trump administration and police brutality before saying: “The chairperson of the Flagler schools board has only amplified and–”
McDonald interrupted him, stopped him from going on, said what he was saying was “not the work of the board, this is an issue you have with me,” and inviting him to speak with her later–but not continue his statement. A stunned School Board member Andy Dance would later call the maneuver a “low point” in board history. (See Petocz’s full, unedited statement here.)
Petocz was referring to revelations days earlier that McDonald was using her Twitter feed to disseminate misinformation, tweets about “brainwashing” children in schools, denigrating Black Lives Matter protesters, and ridiculing LGBTQ rights. (She hasn’t stopped. “The jab kills and maims!!,” she tweeted earlier this month, one of many covid-denying falsehoods, also retweeting a line denying the Biden election: “This is why you don’t certify fraud.”).
After McDonald censored Petocz, Conklin raised an issue with the process, saying “the individual could have continued with his comment whether we like it or not,” if only with a warning not to use names. “We have to be careful in not allowing people to express themselves and share.”
McDonald responded, saying she had been criticized after recent board meetings “because I allowed people to say things that were personally addressed.”
It was at that point that Bertrand had his outburst from the back of the room: “Why didn’t you stand–” he began, immediately getting rebuked by the board attorney, Conklin and Andy Dance. Bertrand stood up from his chair, but never made it close to the dais. In the room he was diametrically at the other end from where McDonald was sitting, and though he walked near the dais at the other end–where Tucker was sitting–he was never close enough to even appear in the wide angle frame of the meeting video.
“Why didn’t you stand to defend my son?” Bertrand is heard yelling.
“Mr. Bertrand, I’m going to ask that you sit down,” Gavin tells him, as a sheriff’s deputy walks from the left side of the room into the well of the chamber, but barely for a second. The deputy then turns around and walks back out of the frame.
McDonald, unflustered by any of it, continued: “Please sit down Randy, this isn’t about that,” she said, as Bertrand tried to interrupt again very briefly, though what he says is unintelligible over Gavin’s request and McDonald’s own: “Allow me to speak please. One of the rules is the board cannot communicate with the speakers. That is very uncomfortable for the audience. But I would love to have a conversation with any and every person in this community about the misunderstandings, about the way I conduct the business according to the commonly accepted rules of this board…” McDonald went on in her usual tone, looking not one bit changed, upset or uncomfortable.
It is undeniable from the video that while Bertrand interrupted the meeting with his outburst, he at no point was threatening, either in words or in coming anywhere near the dais, let alone coming near McDonald. Had he made an audible death threat, he would have faced arrest. McDonald’s claim to the contrary is a fabrication.
So is her claim that “there was no action, no, no recess.” After McDonald went on for three minutes talking about “working together” and how “we are one human race,” Gavin said: “Board, at this time I’m going to recess this meeting for five minutes, where we will come back to the dais, and we will begin our meeting.”
McDonald had no objection to Gavin, as the parliamentarian, recessing the meeting. McDonald made no attempt to call for a vote or otherwise interfered with Gavin. The meeting–the very first meeting with Cathy Mittelstadt in the superintendent’s chair–was recessed. Five months later, as the board bid Dance and Maria Barbosa farewell–McDonald, in the well of the chamber, passed the mic around to anyone who wanted to speak, including Bertrand, who stood next to her and spoke before he and McDonald hugged.
Obviously, there was no hint of any animus between them.