The public reaction to the four candidates for superintendent is in, with all candidates eliciting strong responses ahead of the Flagler County School Board’s pick of a new superintendent at a special meeting on Tuesday.
Judging from the public’s 48 comment cards generated during and after a two-hour meet-and-greet with the four candidates, there is no clear-out favorite, but there are certainly sharper opinions, good and bad and in descending order, about Earl Johnson, Vernon Orndorff and Cathy Mitteldstadt. Janet Womack generated her share of strong responses, but also more indifference than the others
Johnson, currently the executive director of leadership development in the district and a former principal at Matanzas High School, provoked the most responses: by sheer quantity, a third of the words in the responses went to Johnson. Most were supportive. But many were not. Those who liked him did so passionately. Those who didn’t had strong and specific concerns, making him the most polarizing of the candidates, at least based on the public’s responses.
Orndorff, who was in the Flagler district for 12 years and followed the same path as Johnson in the second half of his tenure here (from Matanzas to the leadership position) before taking a superintendent post in a small district in Texas, divided the public between those who like his personality, his warmth and his previous history in the district and those whom think him “blah” or “unimpressive,” as several wrote: “passion” is not a word you find in the responses to Orndorff, as it is with Johnson, though he is the only candidate who drew strong support for his support for staff–and some criticism for doing so.
Mittlestadt, a long-time Palm Coast resident and assistant superintendent in St. Johns County school, the state’s top-performing district year after year, was appreciated for her self-confidence, her experience, her energy and enthusiasm, drawing minimal negative comments aside for being in a different county–an irony, considering her home in the county.
Womack is the only candidate who truly has no present or past connection to Flagler: she was superintendent in a small Alabama district until three years ago and has been a consultant since, and is looking for a place where she and her husband can eventually retire, or not move from anymore, as she told the school board during her interview last week. She drew the least number of reactions, with more comment cards leaving her segment blank than with others. But the reactions she did elicit were appreciative of her strong leadership experience and her knowledge, if also critical of her tendency to generalize and speak too much of Alabama in what one commenter described as “Broad-stroked answers with no depth and no details specific for Flagler. Kept referring to her home state.”
Comments written mostly on the fly in reaction to a single public appearance by the candidates, and perhaps to their interviewed in videos posted online, are like an election-year straw poll. There is nothing scientific about the way the reactions were collected. But the more than 125 people who turned up at last week’s meet-and-greet at the Buddy Tayloe Middle School cafeteria was larger than on previous such occasions, as was the number of comments collected.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of public reactions by candidate, in alphabetical order. While a few of the comments were illegible, most were lucid and several were typed online. The quotes here leave them intact except for the most obvious misspellings and lack of punctuation.
With Johnson, the public either loved him as if in a reflection of his own favorite word–“passion”–or found him more troubling than any of the three other candidates.
“Excellent top candidate, knows Flagler, kids love him,” went a typical answer. “Passionate about students, ready for the job.” “Vision for educating youngsters from the beginning. Knows the system and understands how it works,” went another. “Current position gives him a unique perspective in the district. Best qualities by far.” Recurring supportive comments pointed out his “local ties” and “local experience,” how he “knows the issues,” making him a “great choice.”
“He’s been in the school system,” one resident wrote. “He wants to build on what has been done and make necessary improvements based on what he has seen and experienced. He knows what needs to get done. His comment about the Individual Education Plan was a very important issue that needs pointed attention.”
Johnson had introduced himself to the public as he had during his interview with the board, saying his two principal goals would be to extend VPK to a full day, at no cost to parents, and to reduce the work load on special education faculty. While both ideas impressed several people at the meet and greet, Johnson did not say how he would pay for either beyond grant funding, an uncertain and non-recurring source of revenue, though that distinction was lost of many in the audience at the meet and greet.
“Vision where most needed,” one resident wrote, specifying his ideas about early learning and students with disabilities. “Very forceful–vision directed.” “Well thought plans to continue to improving the school system.” “Cares about student progress and learning.” “Currently engaged in this community. Was able to address the current situation and speak to the specific needs of this community.” “Has the experience to be an excellent superintendent.”
But the concerns with Johnson’s leadership were equally forceful, more varied and more specific. “Worked on a county-wide project with Earl and he never followed up on commitments and seemed very disorganized,” one person wrote. “Dr. Johnson is often loud and boisterous with subordinates and leads through a climate uncomfortable and intimidating,” another wrote, a comment echoed in another, longer comment card.
“Much of the staff does not trust him or is afraid of him,” that commenter wrote. “He alienated ESE parents by threatening to sue them. There are a host of problems in the schools that stem from poor management skills of in school admin, of which he is in charge. I’m not a fan of using extra Title I money for full day VPK, maybe hire a few extra behavior specialist which is what we really need, and with the curriculum standards and assessment requirements changing, he barely mentioned that, which seems to put the District’s A rating at risk. Finally, he pitched that, by hiring him, it would be a seamless extension of the current system. But if that’s what the school board wanted, then why didn’t we at least explore a way for Jim Tager to stay on board rather than announce a national superintendent search? Clearly the school board is looking for something different, which you get in Womack and Mittelstadt. Maybe you get some of the same benefits with Johnson, but you get more of the same problems, and no new vision to move us into the rest of the decade.”
An apparently different person wrote at length: “Dr. Johnson appeared to be campaigning for his position. When speaking with him last night, he used the words campaigning. I believe this should not be a popularity contest. These candidates should have the students, staff and parents as their first priority. Not voicing who they know in the community and/or how long they have been working within this community. He seemed to give all the right answers during his interview. However, his past experience does not reflect that. Is he Trustworthy? Is he Approachable? Is he here for the students? Would you feel comfortable voicing your opinion to him? Especially after his recent actions.” That person also pointed out how, when criticized by the Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council known as EPAC during the superintendent-hiring process, Johnson responded with the threat of a lawsuit.
Others questioned whether Johnson’s ambitious plan was realistic, given current financial constraints: “I think he’s making promises that he won’t be able to make. Full day Vpk. Also, it’s a little too late make ese his focus. I feel that he is taking this stance to placate his critics. As a person already in a leadership role, he would already have the ability to participate in the improvement of ese. Why hasn’t he participated already?”
Others were more curt, writing “none” under the part of the comment card that asked for “strengths.” Or: “Not ready to be a superintendent.” Or: “Has not followed up on communication issues as he said he would. Has supported principals that have created hostile environment.”
Mittelstadt drew a large number of reactions too, some of them negative, but not from the extremities where the Johnson comments seemed to dwell. One comment summed up the positive end: “Excellent answers, excellent experience, very approachable and willing to listen. Works with all stakeholders. Love her energy.”
One resident called her interview “exemplary,” then went on to assess her appearance in public: “She adeptly handled very poignant questions asked of her at the meet and greet.” (The writer did not specify.) “Her presentation tonight was inspiring,” the writer went on. “Based off her interview and interaction tonight at the meet and greet, Mittelstadt is a top 2 candidate with Womack. Very impressive. Mittelstadt came across as a disciplined, no nonsense leader who has a passion for students, the community and staff. She deserves very serious consideration for the position.”
“I watched all of the interviews but kept going back to Cathy’s and remain “wow’d” by her responses,” another wrote. “She was succinct in all of her answers, provided real life examples as well as her thought process. You could visibly see she was confident, poised and well educated on the life cycle of a big School District. Not to mention she has helped St. John’s School district get to where they are today and sustain their reputation for the number one school district in Florida. Hands down your TOP candidate and the right selection for Flagler Superintendent.”
Some responses focused on Mittelstadt’s student-centered approach, which seems to echo that of Tager, the current superintendent. “Supports rights of all kids,” one wrote, but also adding: “Concerned because she does not know specifics of district.” Her experience in the leadership of a district with 40 schools was seen as a plu by one respondent, who predicted that that sort of experience would soon be needed in Flagler.
“Definitely what Flagler County needs,” one wrote. “During her interview, She showed her confidence and knowledge with solid answers. She says students are her first priority, she’ll be transparent, has an open door policy. Appears trustworthy and approachable. Mittestadt is clearly, in my opinion the Best choice for Flagler County Superintendent.”
But she drew criticism, too, albeit in general terms: “Not familiar with community, too far removed from our situation.” “Too data driven. Not personable.” “Lives in this community yet referred to it as ‘your roads, your waterways.’ Did not engage as a Flagler resident.”
“Lack of vision.” “A lot of platitudes. Blah, blah, blah with little practical substance or application.” “Impressive credentials but not a part of this community.” “No plan for the future.”
Orndorff had two school board members’ votes three years ago when he applied to be superintendent. When he didn’t get the third, he ended his application process and left for Texas. His return suggests that he may have won over the third vote. But beyond that sort of speculation, he could count on a dozen years’ history of rising through the administrative ranks without controversy, without being anything close to a lightning rod, as Johnson from time to time can seem to be.
Responses to Orndorff reflect an appreciation for his gentle nature, his tempered demeanor and his focus on family, if not familiarity. But that left room for his qualities as a top leader of the district, and for many, that did not come across.
“When speaking with Mr. Orndorf he appears to be approachable, trustworthy and has the knowledge of Flagler County,” one resident wrote. “However, he appeared to be here more for his staff than the students. That is a priority but there are times when there will be a fine line between supporting your staff and supporting your community. As we have seen recently with issues arriving at local schools.”
But the staff does love him, some of them in comments reflecting that he alone paid attention to service employees, not just teachers–a slight irony, because Orndorff in his years in administration was also part of the district’s bargaining team, opposite teachers and service workers.
“Mr. Orndorff has a true commitment to the students, teachers and community stakeholders in Flagler County,”: went one reaction. “He also has the knowledge of the current executive team to change the culture of our county to a true collaborative environment where each student will have the opportunity for a world class education.” Or these three different reactions:
“Cares about community. Compassionate, student learning.” “He has character and he knows our country and our county’s needs.” “Knows Flagler County. Best Candidate and will build bridges.”
There was this extended analysis: “Orndorff seems like a well-intentioned guy, but his interview was anemic. It was perplexing that, when asked about the top two or three things to focus on in the district, he chose to talk about custodial services and lawn maintenance. Really? Orndorff obfuscates with answers and addressed tough questions at the meet and greet with nonsensical, politically correct answers that didn’t address issues head on. This was consistent throughout the application process. He probably makes a great principal or lower-level district administrator, but he does not have the toughness or skill to lead Flagler Schools at this moment in our history. Overall, the worst performance of all candidates and very disappointing.”
The responses were all anonymous, so it’s impossible to tell who wrote them, but some of the more extended, critical reactions to Johnson and Orndorff closely mirrored the narratives about the two candidates in EPAC’s published analyses. And there’’s no question that those turning in responses included some of those who had addressed the board publicly, for or against certain candidates: that’s the nature of the process.
But the comment cards also included a large amount of independent voices that summed up their negative reaction to Orndorff as some had to other candidates, and reactions to Orndorff had a certain consistency: “Kind of blah. Not convincing.” “How long before he leaves again?”
“Thought he would be more detailed.” “Not interesting.” “Not impressed.” “Not impressive.” “Iffy.”
Womack has her fans, at least among some of those who responded. Many simply did not pay her any attention in their comment cards.
“Her interview started off with a bang!,” one wrote. “Very impressed until we hit the one hour mark. It was apparent she loves to elaborate beyond was is really needed.” (Womack alone among the four candidates took up her 90 minutes and prevented the board members from asking all the questions they had. Her responses would often circle around tangents before returning to the subject at hand.) “When I listen to her and then listen to Cathy I would say there is no comparison. I like Janet’s level of experience but not sure she is the right fit for Flagler.”
The questionable fit was a recurring theme in responses about Womack: “Impressive credentials but did not address Flagler needs and unable to address specific concerns.” “Very knowledgeable. Worrisome that she isn’t from Florida or know our County culture. Retired once already.” “A lot of experience, however not compatible to Flagler needs.”
But she had strong support, too: “Well spoken. Strong. Would love to see her in Flagler,” one response went–from the same author who’d provided previous lengthy encomiums. The respondent went on: “Super smart, very personable, knows her business, offered specific answers to concerns. Has a strong moral compass. In the top two candidates. We’d be lucky to have her as Superintendent. Dr. Womack’s interview was excellent, but she was the SUPERSTAR of the meet and greet. She demonstrated a real natural skill with the public, answering difficult questions directly and effectively. This would be a desperately needed skill for our next superintendent, who will have to mend damaged relationships with staff and certain parent groups. Plus she is a self described data wonk, and a strong instructional leader. She’s the educational leadership trifecta that we’d be lucky to get.”
Others found that she was “too much fluff about being #1 county, without emphasis on people, children within” (Womack was previously named superintendent of the year in Alabama). “How do you become a pace-setter?” one resident asked, after hearing Womack describe herself repeatedly as a pace-setter.
A couple of commenters added general thoughts outside of the four candidates. “You need a home grown superintendent,” one said. “Please do the right thing!!” said another.
The school board meets at 1 p.m. on Tuesday in Room 3, on the third floor of the Government Services Building in Bunnell, to vote on its next superintendent. The meeting is open to the public.
See each candidate’s interview: