After facing a relatively small but angry group of parents who accused the district of wanting to balance school populations in part based on racial and socio-economic equity, the Flagler County school administration on Tuesday announced it was drastically scaling back what would have been a county-wide rezoning plan set for next year. The district is opting instead for rezoning that will affect only the two middle schools, the two high schools and the entirety of Palm Coast’s R-Section and parts of west Flagler, but none other.
The previous plan’s rezoning would have affected every one of the district’s nine schools, balancing out school populations to lessen overcrowdings in some schools, such as Old Kings Elementary and Buddy Taylor Middle School, while filling out more seats at such schools as Indian Trails Middle and Belle Terre Elementary. The district held two “listening sessions” with residents. The response was not enthusiastic, especially from parents at Old Kings Elementary–the district’s whitest school by far–or those whose children would have been shifted to Buddy Taylor, where almost a fifth of students are Black. The re-zoning would have balanced out some of the numbers. Old Kings, for instance, would have gone from 79 percent white to 59 percent white.
The outrage among parents was as swift and cunning: the parents blamed the districts of being racist by using racial equality as one of rezoning’s criteria, and casting the district’s method under the guise of “equity,” a term usual synonymous with equality, but recently reframed in conservative circles as an ideological fighting word typically–and inaccurately–associated with “marxism” or, at worst, critical race theory–elements that have nothing to do with the district’s approach.
But the response–at the listening session, in writing, in public comments at board meetings and workshops–also appears to have been a reality check for the district. “It was too much all at once,” School Board member Jill Woolbright said.
It would have been a shock to the system after well over a decade of no rezoning at all. So the much scaled-back plan resulted.
In sum, students from the R Section almost exclusively–one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, with Palm Coast’s higher proportion of Black residents–will be affected: those students were going to Buddy Taylor Middle School and Flagler Palm Coast High School. They will be going to Indian Trails Middle School and Matanzas High School. The area of Espanola–even poorer than the R Section– will also be part of the same plan. Old Kings Elementary and the rest of the elementary schools will not be affected next year. No students from Matanzas or Indian Trails will be affected. “It’s one way, we’re not moving anybody into FPC or buddy Taylor,” Patty Bott, the district’s point person on rezoning, told the board.
“I’m definitely in support of phasing this,” Board member Colleen Conklin said.
The district will hold two more “listening sessions” framed around the new plan ahead of an October workshop, when the board will again be updated. It’s not until December that the board will taken an actual vote on rezoning. So the plan may change yet again.
Bott did not have the specific demographic numbers that would result from that change, nor clear maps, underscoring to what extent the plan had been in flux before Tuesday’s workshop. The meeting room was filled with residents who’d showed up to contest the previous plan, unaware that it was no longer operable. But their objections again reflected the dynamics in play–the same dynamics the district will have to face sooner or later, when it turns its attention to rezoning the county’s remaining school. The objections also reflected the way ideology, inaccuracies and scare tactics have entered the debate though rezoning is typically an emotional issue not known necessarily to bring out the very best those affected.
The meeting room on the third floor of the Government Services Building included many members of “Flagler Citizens Committee,” a newly formed group of 15 people who organized “to express their concerns with the district’s plans,” in their words of Steven Furnari, who leads the group. (Furnari also leads a advisory panel of parents with special needs students, and played a role in forcing the investigation that led to the forced resignation of Terence Culver, until 2019 the principal at Belle Terre Elementary School.)
“Equity, a Marxist principle is being used to reorganize and manager public schools on the basis of race and class. This is inconsistent with the values of our state, of our community, and that is likely unconstitutional,” Furnari told the school board.
The group, Furnari said, would not object to racial or socio-economic mixes that result from “objective standards like bus times or student counts. “We love and appreciate the rich diversity of our county and choose to live in this community because of it. What we have an issue with is a panel of 12 unelected public school administrators labeling our children and assigning them into groups based on immutable characteristics, like the color of their skin, or those outside of their control, like their parents’ socioeconomic status, and then shipping them off to different schools on that basis. We ask the elected members of this board to consider what kind of message is communicated to students when the district leadership says, we think you are too white or too privileged to go to your school or we think you are too Black or too underprivileged to go to your school.”
Kristi Furnari went further: “Equity means equal outcomes. Equity means equal grades for all students, equity means reducing everyone everything to the lowest common denominator, because everyone must be equal. In the name of equity, no one is allowed to achieve more than anyone else,” she said–three inaccuracies, as far as the rezoning plan is concerned. Furnari’s other claims, such as the elimination of honors, IB or flagship programs in the name of equity, went from exaggerated to absurd while somehow transforming a statement by the superintendent about tolerance and acceptance into an attack on parents as “narrow minded.”
“You must stop entertaining the divisive theories of Marxism critical race theory and white privilege, or you will only push more families out of Flagler schools and private schools for homeschooling,” Furnari said.
In fact, the district’s plan does not refer to “equity” in any ideological context but to uniformity reflective of the community at large. Equity as defined by every dictionary of note is neither unconstitutional nor “Marxist.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines “equity” as “the situation in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.” Dictionary.com defines it as “the quality of being fair or impartial,” and as “something that is fair and just.” The principle is spelled out in the Florida constitution: “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” It’s in that context that the district refers to prioritizing “equitable access to safe, quality educational environments for all students” among its seven principles undergirding the rezoning process. (In that context, “equitable” is identical to “equal.” Equity in legal terminology has a slightly different, more affirmative meaning.)
Whether in the previous plan or the plan discussed on Tuesday, students are being shifted. There are of course no plans to equalize grades or predetermine outcomes. The phrases Furnari was reading are common talking points in conservative think tanks and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, conflating the trigger-like Marxist specter with more recent, largely misinformed hysteria about “critical race theory,” though either has little relation, if any, to the more pedestrian number-crunching of rezoning.
(“We have no objection to equality. We want equality! We object to the use of the word equity,” Kristy Furnari wrote FlaglerLive in an email on Sept. 23. “If they are the same thing, why don’t they just use equality? If they are not the same they need to define what this means. Otherwise why introduce a knowingly loaded political term?” The loading of the word, however, was nonexistent before groups like the Heritage Foundation loaded it with an ideological construct absent from district principles. The district confirmed that the two words –equity and equality–have been used interchangeably. “We see it that way. Those two words were used interchangeably in our discussions,” Jason Wheeler the district’s chief spokesman and a member of the rezoning committee, said on Sept. 23. “In no way are we racing to the middle, or do we want to race to the middle.”)
Equity also means ensuring that students who don’t have enough to eat at home do so at school, or who don’t have an internet connection at home do so at school, or who don’t have adults caring enough to look out for their education do so at school, or who don’t feel safe at home do so at school, and so on. Race and socio-economic background are incidental to those objectives, though it’s undisputed–and a reflection of the county’s inequalities–that minorities form a larger proportion o the poor (and lower-achievers in schools) than whites. Still, the table-turning prevailed in Tuesday’s discussion points.
Bonnie Iacobelli called the original rezoning plan “based on race or class is racist.” Others contested the district’s expectations of student population projections in coming years, referred to the timing of rezoning following almost two years of covid disruptions, and the number of students impacted–over 2,000 students, before more students are impacted once new schools are built, as the district plans to, nearer the middle of the decade.
Yet another parent who described her children as bi-racial and herself as poor and a single mother said the rezoning would devastate one of her children. “My daughter is going to fall apart. She has ADD off the charts. She has one friend in old kings, one, and she’s been there for years,” the parent said. “We’re not all rich white folk. My children are adopted out of foster care system, they’re biracial. They’ve got issues and moving them away from their family–and Old Kings is our family. It’s not just a school that I drop them off, it’s my family. It’s my only support network in this town.”
Crystal Kelly, parent of a child at Old Kings Elementary, took issue with the objections. ” This rezoning being about demographics and that being a racist thing comes from mostly white people,” she told the board. “It’s a difficult thing to get it recognized that we as America have a history that is embedded in the soil of racism, and to stand up against that and to try to effect change in a way that raises up demographics that have previously been oppressed and marginalized is admirable.” But she like others noted that the timing of the rezoning, on top of the covid years, was concerning.
By the time Bott presented the plan near the end of what had been a four-hour workshop, and despite its obvious racial and socio-economic implications, Steven Furnari told the board: “All the parents are real happy with the scaled back approach.”
It was no secret that Indian Trails and Matanzas were the more privileged–or, in parental parlance, the “higher-rated”–schools in the equation, compared to Flagler Palm Coast and Buddy Taylor. But the privileged schools were untouched. The students affected would be drawn exclusively from the two lesser-rated ones. The board will discover whether that mingling will raise the ire of Matanzas and Indian Trails parents at the two coming listening sessions.