The surreal in Flagler County School Board meetings has become routine. It was especially so Tuesday afternoon as the board met and again discussed how to go about firing Kristy Gavin, its attorney–even as Gavin was investigating a major crisis the board appeared clueless about: the theft of over $700,000 due the contractor of the Matanzas High School expansion, through a phishing scheme that’s been serially bilking local governments across the country of millions.
But the board’s discussion took an unexpected turn as the possibility of saving Gavin’s job in a different capacity–she would answer to the superintendent as a staff attorney rather than as the board’s attorney–gelled around a consensus that perhaps reflects the board’s leeriness at fostering either more controversy or more difficulties for its new superintendent, who already relies a great deal on Gavin and her unparalleled institutional history.
Gavin had never missed a board meeting in her 17 years, and her absence at Tuesday’s 3 p.m. meeting at first seemed related to her impending termination. But she had informed the superintendent, who informed the board, that she was investigating what the board chair later described as a serious but as yet unclear legal matter: the board had not yet been briefed on what took place, other than that something serious had happened.
What looked like a surprisingly coordinated plan by three school board members–Sally Hunt, Christy Chong, Will Furry–to fire Gavin emerged four weeks ago during a meeting focused on naming LaShakia Moore the permanent superintendent. It turned into a grievance session led by Hunt and echoed by Chong and Furry, against Gavin, with no evidence offered by any of the three. At the following workshop, Furry was delegated to find an attorney to review Gavin’s contract and give the board a roadmap to firing her.
The board delegated Furry even with Board Chair Cheryl Massaro’s support, though Massaro is against Gavin’s firing, and with the vaguest parameters on Furry’s authority, even though he is public record laws, let alone school laws (he is the least educated of the five board members, having only completed high school).
On Tuesday, he told the board that through Googling (what he called “some online searching” and an apparent call to the Florida School Board Association) he’d come up with six potential attorneys, some of whom he said he interviewed, some of whom he said had “conflict of interest,” for having had some association with Gavin or had done legal work for her before, or could not take on the job.
“I settled in on the law firm of Shutts and Bowen LLP,” he said of one of the state’s larger firms, with some 270 attorneys. School law is not among its practices. Employment law is, though the attorney Furry was proposing is Daniel Nordby, who specializes in appellate law.
The firm would charge $5,000 to review Gavin’s contract and issue “a memorandum of different scenarios.” The $5,000 fee would allow for only three hours of communications with board members. Furry recommended that the three-hour limit not be exceeded, otherwise the firm would bill the additional time. The two attorneys handling the matter (Paul Scheck, who specializes in employment law, is the other) bill at $570 and $515 an hour.
Furry described the built-in time for communications with the lawyers as “an hour for up to three board members,” which would exclude two board members from having access to the attorney, absent additional cost.
District protocols require contracts to be reviewed by Gavin. She could not do so in this case, and the board had no idea how it would go about doing so. “Can we phone a friend to just get a second set of eyes on this?” Hunt said, referring to an attorney connected to the Education Foundation. It was not clear who would provide the review of the contract intended to review Gavin’s contract, though the question–and the uncertainty–was another example of the tangled complication miring the board since its decision to fire the attorney.
The firm would provide its memo in time for the school board’s next meeting on Oct. 17.
Furry raised the possibility of avoiding a firing, but his explanation was elliptical. He had taken it upon himself to ask Gavin if she would be willing to exercise the “mutual agreement” clause of her contract. “She did respond with something that she may consider but I will let her bring that forward,” Furry said. “It was not for full termination, it would allow her to have another position.” But the Schutts attorneys would only focus on the termination clause.
Massaro seized on Furry’s opening about saving Gavin’s job and proposed hiring a staff attorney in addition to having a board attorney. “Not that I’m looking forward to spending more money. But in today’s litigious society, we may want to consider that,” Massaro said. “We relocate our current attorney to be the staff attorney, which would help. Then she could be on the negotiating team, the bargaining team, she can’t now because she represents us. That saves us money there. So these are things to think about. But then we would have to figure out how we would get our representation, and it would give her protection. It’s a thought.” She added, “I’m trying to figure out everything we can do to not get us in any kind of contract dispute or liability.”
It would be costly, though compared to Palm Coast and county government, where attorney services approach the $1 million mark (this year’s County Attorney budget is $913,590, and $685,254 for Palm Coast, not including unplanned litigation), the school district’s budget for its attorney’s office is small: $357,900 (for the attorney, a paralegal, and a currently vacant staff assistant, and outside legal costs), even though Gavin has been doing the job of both staff and board attorney, in an organization larger, in employees, than both the county and the city combined. “The job description we currently have does it all. Literally does it all,” Massaro said. “It’s impossible.”
Under the scenario Massaro is proposing, which exists in larger school districts in Florida, the board attorney would be hired and fired by the board, the staff attorney would be hired and fired by the superintendent like other district-level administrators, and report only to the superintendent. In that sense, Gavin would be shielded from the board to a degree–and her institutional knowledge would not be lost.
Furry claimed that’s been his “vision” from the beginning–he had never mentioned it before–but said “anyone that fills that role should have to apply for that position.”
Gavin has already survived what Massaro called a “witch hunt” two years ago, when a different pair of prosecutors sat in Hunt’s and Furry’s seats. Her survival this time, however, remains more conjecture than certainty. Board member Colleen Conklin was absent, as she was tending to her ailing father, though in all likelihood Conklin would have supported the lifeline for numerous reasons.
The discussion ended with the four board members agreeing to what would, in effect, make the $5,000 plan to fire Gavin moot. But they did not say so, having already put the costly cart before their newly saddled horse: no one has accused the board’s three surrealists of thinking through their plans before causing unnecessary or costly damages.