The Flagler County School Board voted 5-0 late Tuesday evening to deny Wadsworth Elementary Principal Paul Peacock’s grievance for an additional $7,500 he claimed he was owed for his service as a negotiator and chief negotiator with the district’s teacher and service employee unions.
The vote, after limited discussion among board members over a misunderstanding in the paperwork, was straight-forward and could not have been in doubt, because the grievance was based on a simple claim refuted by ample documentation, history and law.
But the grievance is a skirmish in a larger power struggle over the superintendent’s future. That struggle continues, with Peacock, school board members and now the local chamber of commerce all having played or still seeking to play a role in the board’s impending decision on whether to renew Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract.
The Peacock Grievance
On its merit, Peacock’s grievance is a simple matter that usually would not make it to a school board appeal. He claimed he was owed an additional $7,500 because his service extended over the entire calendar year. The district said no. All payments are predicated on fiscal year calendars, which begin on July 1 and end on June 30. Peacock had been relieved of his duties as negotiator in June 2022, at the end of the fiscal year, by which time he’d been paid the full $7,500 he was owed–$6,500 for his role as chief negotiator at the bargaining table with the Flagler Educational Support Professional Association known as FESPA, and $1,000 as a negotiator with the Flagler County Education Association, or FCEA, the teachers union.
His one payment as chief negotiator was memorialized on a document he signed, and that indicated it was for the fiscal year. So absent politicking or shaded maneuverings over the issue–two factors that have not exactly been absent from school board politics in the last few months–Peacock did not appear to have a case.
The issue unfolded on two tracks Tuesday evening. The first, regarding the grievance on its merit, was straightforward. The second, regarding Peacock’s interpretation of the history behind the grievance, was less so, and drew a sharp rebuke by Stacy Smith, a teacher who’s attended bargaining sessions for 15 years, and who all but called Peacock a liar.
On the first track, the board was to address the grievance on its merits. Peacock had first filed the grievance with Lashakia Moore, the assistant superintendent, who denied it. He appealed it to Mittelstadt, who denied it, then appealed it to the board. He was given 15 minutes to make his case before the board Tuesday, as was Mittelstadt.
Peacock said it would take him 10 minutes. He actually took up all 15.. But for 13 minutes, he did not speak about the issue before the board. He rehashed the history that led to his removal from his position as negotiator and chief negotiator on the bargaining table. Only at the 13-minute mark of his disquisition did he finally touch on his grievance, saying that for three years that he was paid the supplement, the document indicating payment did not refer to a “fiscal year,” that it did so only in 2021-22.
That was it: that was the basis of his claim that he should be paid for another calendar year. He then returned to the rehash, saying–after couching in blandishment a veiled swipe at Bobby Bossardet, a fellow-negotiator on the bargaining team who was also removed from that position–that he was “singled out as solely responsible for an uncomfortable meeting” over an issue during bargaining.
He then quoted Forrest Gump: “That’s really all I have to say about this matter.”
Mittelstadt spoke for six minutes, doing what she does best: addressing the business at hand without sappy tangents, jokes or flattery. She summarized the grievance process, mentioned–as Peacock had not–the heart of the matter in figures (his claim for an additional $7,500), paid during the fiscal year. Her one digression was to tell the board that she would be tightening the wording surrounding such documentation, to avoid similar conflict in the future.
“Simply put,” Mittelstadt summed up, “the review of this process has been regarding the supplement paid and the services rendered during the physical [sic.] year where Mr. Peacock served as our chief negotiator.” (As often as not school officials, including board members, mistakenly use the word physical when they mean to say fiscal.) She added: ” I followed the policies, I followed our established practices that I inherited as a superintendent, and simply put that’s where we are with this grievance this evening.”
Nevertheless, Peacock focused much of his presentation elsewhere, starting with its preface: “For me, this has nothing to do with politics or future decisions regarding Flagler County Schools,” he’d said, only to cast his argument in re-arguing past and recent history in more political than evidentiary terms, and in an attempt to rehabilitate what he said was his “tarnished reputation.” He did not specify. He provided none of the context that would make that past and present history more comprehensible, though some of that context had bled into the day’s board meetings hours earlier.
Peacock spoke near the 9 o’clock hour Tuesday night. At the very beginning of the 1 p.m. workshop the board had held earlier that afternoon, Board member Sally Hunt said she no longer wanted to be the liaison for Wadsworth Elementary school.
A liaison, as Board Chairman Cheryl Massaro pointedly noted, is responsible for attending School Improvement Council, or SAC, meetings, and report back to the board. “That’s what this is for,” Massaro said. Hunt, however, would meet with Peacock repeatedly to discuss the district and its future, with Peacock brokering meetings with Dusty Sims, the former Flagler Palm Coast High School principal, whom Hunt courted as a possible successor to Mittelstadt, whom she does not like.
Hunt blamed “certain narratives within the media” for her decision to no longer be the liaison. But those narratives were of Hunt’s creation, to the extent that she has disclosed requested documents and herself acknowledged the fact that she has, indeed, been courting Sims and was, in fact, using Peacock as counsel despite his pending grievance–and, more recently, his threat to sue the district. Hunt and Peacock have yet to provide requested copies of their mutual texts. (See: “Behind Principal Paul Peacock’s $7,500 Grievance, a Roil of Politics and Sideshow Maneuvers.”)
A Pressure Group Intervenes
Peacock shares Hunt’s dislike of Mittelstadt, somehow leveraged into a campaign to get rid of her and taken up by the Palm Coast-Flagler Chamber of Commerce, whose representative, Greg Blose, appeared at the 1 p.m. meeting to declare, pressure-group style, that the chamber no longer had confidence in Mittelstadt. He did not explain why or provide evidence of her failings.
The chamber’s board includes the likes of Garry Lubi, who did not return a call Tuesday, Teresa Rizzo, whose Flagler Education Foundation, the non-profit arm of the district, Monday organized and boasted of a celebration of the district’s top educators and employees, Michael Chiumento III, the powerful land-use lawyer who went head-to-head with the district over its impact fee increase last year, and who is Peacock’s attorney, David Ayres of Flagler Broadcasting, and John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher whose judgment in leadership is suspect: Last fall Walsh again endorsed Joe Mullins, the county commissioner at the time, despite Mullins’s four-year record of racism, aggression and insults toward other commissioners and members of the community, and despite his chronic divisiveness, some of it often aired on Flagler Broadcasting’s WNZF, where Mullins continues to buy half-hour ad spots.
“We expect great relationships and trust between Administration and faculty, staff, students, families and community members,” the chamber’s statement critical of Mittelstadt had said, again without providing evidence to the contrary, and of course making no mention of how that jives with some of its own members’ endorsements or business relationships with voices diametrically opposed from that message.
Peacock was in the room when Blose made his brief speech. He was among the principals about to address the board at the 1 p.m. workshop about the fabulous things going on at their schools and the terrific improvements they say have been happening since Covid.
Versions of History
By the time he argued his grievance before board at the evening meeting, he provided his version of its context: “Everything hinges around a vote that was taken for an insurance rebate,” he said.
In sum, the district’s self-insurance reserve had a balance of $4.6 million, $1.2 million more than necessary. (“That $4.6 million,” teacher Jamie Patton, a member of FCEA’s bargaining team, told the board last May, “comes through the hard work of your employees. It is not something you’ve given us. It is our premiums that fund the reserve.”) The unions thought they should get a rebate of up to $900 per employee, depending on years of service. Peacock and his team agreed, and signed a tentative agreement to that effect.
“The members of both teams supported the recommendation to the board,” Peacock said. “It was thought to be a win win. And it was a time sensitive matter. And the union was well aware we had not gone to executive session and would require board approval regardless of having the TA signed or not.” TA means “tentative agreement.”
What Peacock did not tell the board in his argument Tuesday evening is what he had told the unions, according to union members who took part in the negotiations: that the board, in fact, agreed to the TA. That was not true.
Stacy Smith who, as vice president of FCEA for seven years–Katie Hansen was president–attended all bargaining sessions, was present when Peacock spoke of the TA last spring.
“I was in the room when Paul Peacock came to us three separate times–we were meeting weekly at those times–and said that that insurance ratification rebate was indeed approved by the board. Three times,” Smith said. “I have it. I am the note taker. I’ve always been the note taker for bargaining sessions. I have it in my records that he stated, he even bragged to miss Hansen of how happy the board was, And how happy the superintendent was to work on that.”
She referred to what she had told the board in May, when she was more detailed about what had taken place in the bargaining room: “The district side held a sign that said, ‘We love Katie.’ ‘Katie needs a raise,’ when we proposed this rebate. They were so happy. I believe the words that they use are ‘we’re so happy to give this to teachers. It makes us proud that we can give back to the teachers.’ I put it in my notes.”
In May, Smith had not mentioned Peacock by name, but the reference was clear enough for board members and anyone familiar with the bargaining dynamics to understand–when she implied he should be replaced: “Maybe I’m thinking we need to bring Mr. Copeland out of retirement, or we need to learn how to bargain at the table. Faithfully.” Jerry Copland was the fearsome but respected chief negotiator for the district for many years, until Peacock took over.
With that in mind, “it was very hard to sit in the audience today and hear him not tell the full truth,”: Smith said Tuesday evening at the end of the meeting. “So I thought I would express the full truth in the public light.”
The agreement was signed by the bargaining teams on April 26, the board rejected it on April 28, seeking more information. It eventually did accept it in late May, but not before relations with the unions had broken down over what the unions called “bad faith.” And not before hearing numerous members of both unions lambasting it at the May 17, 2022 meeting. (See that segment in full here.) That’s the criticism Conklin and other board members had been hearing and reading, leading Conklin to criticize Peacock in her texts to the superintendent.
“I attempted to take as much responsibility as possible,” Peacock told the board. In early June, Mittelstadt informed him that he would be shifted to Wadsworth Elementary. “I was very disappointed in the move to not be in that position anymore,” Peacock said.
On June 16. Mittelstadt told the union presidents that an outside negotiator would take the place of Peacock and Bobby Bossardet, who was named principal at FPC. “I feel I was demoted,” Peacock said, even as he said in the same breath that going to Wadsworth “was the best thing that has come out of out of this entire thing.”
None of that had to do with the merits of the grievance. But by then it was clear that the grievance itself had nothing to do with the grievance. It’s been a sub-plot in a larger issue. The evening’s public comment segments had their further share of comments supportive and critical of Mittelstadt, as that track continues: the board is to discuss Mittelstadt’s evaluation next week, and vote on whether to renew her contract later in April. Peacock lost a battle Tuesday, but in a war yet to decided.