An attempt by School Board members Will Furry and Christy Chong to censure Cheryl Massaro, the board’s chair, over personal statements she’d made on social media about three of her colleagues failed, 3-2, Tuesday evening.
The motion and the discussion surrounding it had elements of the surreal, as most school board meetings now do. Massaro’s comments were cutting, but nowhere near the slanders Chong and Furry had peddled during their campaign a few months ago, when they portrayed their opponents as criminals, lied about them “indoctrinating” children or pushing sexually explicit books on kindergarteners, or when only two weeks ago they’d capped months of baseless accusations and unspoken (or at least unopposed) bigotry against the superintendent with a vote to fire her. Last night, they spoke as if transfigured into paragons of virtue.
The vote took place not long after the board unanimously agreed to contract with the Florida School Board Association to shepherd the board through the hiring of its next superintendent, its sixth since 2010. The board voted 3-2 on April 4 not to renew Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract when it expires in June. Mittelstadt is carrying on until her last day.
The vote, countering significant public support for Mittelstadt and lacking justifications other than vague statements and unsubstantiated generalities by the three board members in the majority, angered Massaro, who made her feelings known on April 10 in one of her recurring Facebook updates on board business.
“I would like to take a moment to share some personal thoughts,” Massaro had prefaced, after talking about some of the last meetings’ developments. “As a school board member I am required to support every decision made by the board and will do my best to assist with the process of securing an available replacement for superintendent’s position. However, I would like to share that I personally lost trust in this board, and it will take a great deal of time to regain this very important factor needed for successful team process. At this point, I believe that three of our five school board members do not have Flagler schools, all students, their families and communities’ best interest as their priority.”
She was referring to Furry, Chong and Hunt, about whom she spoke in turn in sharp terms, accusing them of “making decisions based solely on their personal agendas and ideology, as well as on their interests and external entities,” a reference that includes their hard-right church constituencies and the local chamber of commerce. She added: “I was taught that if you work hard and do what is right, you will be rewarded. Obviously this is not all true in Flagler County. However, I promise to continue to make the best decision for every student and staff member, as I always have, and work hard to rebuild board stability.”
The posting did not get a very large viewership–334 views, as of Tuesday evening, 13 comments from 10 people, including a bemusing “Hi Cheryl” and the emoji of a hand waving from Chong.
Near the end of Tuesday evening’s meeting’s agenda, Furry brought up the statement, calling some of the comments “unacceptable and divisive and not true.” He singled out the part about not having the best interest of schools, and criticized Massaro for adjourning the special meeting that ended Mittelstadt’s tenure, immediately after the vote, without giving the board time for final comments. (Massaro this evening said it was a safety measure that had been discussed ahead of time–she did not say with whom–because the meeting was in her view getting out of hand. While it’s true that a few people in the audience verbalized their dissatisfaction at the vote, the chamber was nowhere near as tense or dangerous as it had been at a few meetings in the wake of the Covid pandemic over a year and two years ago. Even if there was a need to suspend proceedings, as has happened before, the meeting would have then had to be reconvened and could not arbitrarily be ended.)
Furry was misreading board rules, however, when he said Massaro had violated her responsibility “for promoting a cooperative team atmosphere among the superintendent board members, board attorney and the board.” That responsibility, as any local government attorney would tell (as as one told FlaglerLive after the meeting) him prevails at meetings and during board functions, but it does not necessarily extend to Massaro’s personal statements, especially statements that addressed board decisions and board motives, from her perspective: an elected official never gives up First Amendment rights. He then accused her of losing voters’ trust.
“I’ve lost confidence in you as well,” Chong told Massaro. “I thought we were off to a great start. It’s not okay to be so divisive just because the vote did not go your way. I find this to be unprofessional and a form of an intimidation and control that I will not tolerate. And I think that we should possibly consider that there could be consequences for that.” Not 50 minutes later, in another startling display of selective memory, Chong said: ” Everyone equally has the freedom of speech to say where they’re at and where they stand.”
Hunt spoke in turn, though characteristically did so mostly about herself, her grievances and her “tremendous background for this role” (her words), mischaracterizing others along the way.
Board member Colleen Conklin lambasted the three for bringing up the issue moments after deciding on the next steps to hire a superintendent, and to do so at the evening meeting. “I think it’s inappropriate, as we’re sitting here getting ready to do a national superintendent search, that we’re continuing to have this conversation on the dais,” Conklin said. “If there were concerns they certainly could have been shared during the workshop, instead of putting a show on for everyone else.” In fairness to the sanctimonious trio, however, the workshop had run late, as workshops now routinely do, and had to be adjourned to give the board time for a brief break before the evening.
Furry said it made no difference whether the issue was brought up in workshop or at the evening meeting: both are broadcast. But he could not have made the motion to censure Massaro had he brought it up at the workshop, as he now did even after Massaro again stressed that she’d spoken only as herself as an individual, not for the board.
“All the things you claimed I did to you, you did to her,” Massaro told the three, referring to the way they’d shredded Mittelstadt’s reputation, “and I find that extremely abrasive and offensive. Everything you mentioned, very offensive. The idea was to work close together as a team and build a team concept. That special meeting you had all of your mind’s made up before you got here.” She asked them where the constituents they claimed supported them were that evening, when they voted to end the superintendent’s contract, and 30 of 32 people spoke in favor of retaining her. Furry’s response was that he was elected by constituents who sent him to do the work so they could stay home with their families.
He made the motion to censure, Chong seconded, the vote was taken, with Furry and Chong voting for it and Massaro and Conklin voting against. Then there was silence. Hunt had not voted. It was 30 seconds before she finally cast a vote against the motion.
The board members’ final comments were yet to come. They had to follow a few public comments that added to the surrealism. There was one from Jearlyn Dennie, the GOP operative who had been County Commissioner Joe Mullins’s whisperer through his most bigoted slanders, threats and personal attacks on social media, in public, against cops and even on the dais in four years as a county commissioner, when he called fellow commissioners sons of bitches. She had never once criticized him through incessant vileness that had nothing to do with public policy, yet here she was describing herself incensed at Massaro, who had only addressed public policy, for her “lack of professionalism on social media.”
Dennie was merely disingenuous. Another member of the public was more debased when she wondered aloud to board members why student’s scores would fall when “this is not some low socioeconomic zone, we don’t have a huge immigration population.” Or when Jill Woolbright, the former school board member who’d filed a frivolous criminal complaint against Mittelstadt and who had compared fellow-board members and school administrators to Satan, now telling the board that “it is not proper to go on your public official School Board page and disparage three school board members.” In fairness to Woolbright, she had called her colleagues and district staffers evil only from a church stage.
Those were Furry’s and Chong’s supporters who did turn out Tuesday evening.
When it came time for the board members’ final comments, those continued the mixture of cringe-worthy grievances, condescension, some good will, and more head-shaking mischaracterizations about the job of an elected official.
“I will say right now that I forgive chair Massaro For my perception of what happened,” Furry said, as if suddenly throned in a pontifical chair.
“And chair,” Chong told her, “I know you mentioned that you were speaking as yourself and I understand that but I work for a large company. I’ve always worked in big companies, and if I were to go out publicly and talk about my co-workers, it would be inappropriate and I would be fired. That’s how it works in the world.” Of course it’s not how it works for elected officials, whose allegiance–as Furry had told Massaro–is not to each other: “We weren’t elected to work for you,” he’d told her. They answer only to their constituents, who get to retain or fire them at election time.
Hunt lamented about the torment of being Hunt (“it’s really hard to evaluate a situation really do your work and to to, you know, be open to different ideas and different solutions and to have people just bully you and harass you”) and about greatness of being Hunt (“I’m proud to be a strong woman to make the decisions”).
Conklin spoke of the necessity for cohesion in a “beautiful community,” with a wry touch: “This is a dream of a place for someone to come in to lead us–if we allow ourselves to be led,” Conklin said.
“I’m sorry if I offended all of you and that was really not my intent. I was angry, and that was my anger coming out and I apologize for that,” Massaro said, “because I know we can work together. We need to work together.” But she’s worried about the messages being sent candidates who might apply for the superintendent’s position, assuming quality candidates, as opposed to toadies, will apply. The board’s ideological rifts leave that an open question.
“Knowing how this district has had a rotating basis for superintendents, it’s quite frightening,” Massaro said. “Every three years, we change superintendents every three years, and anybody coming in here should probably be petrified, because in three years, there’ll be a new board.” Not that the current board would be any easier to work with, as its talent for declensions week after week suggests.