Teresa Rizzo, a State Regional Literacy Director for the Florida Department of Education since last year and a teacher in the Flagler County school district for over a decade, was named this week director of the Flagler Education Foundation, the non-profit support arm of the school district.
Rizzo, 44, succeeds Joe Rizzo, her husband, who died unexpectedly in March at age 47.
Joe Rizzo (who had contended with heart issues for many years) was the foundation’s third executive director starting in 2017. His appointment may have been a surprise at first, if only to those who didn’t know him: he had no fund-raising experience. But he was among the best-connected and infectiously congenial people in Flagler County, with a natural talent for getting people to contribute: the Foundation on his watch broke fund-raising records.
The Foundation board appears to be making the same bet on Teresa Rizzo, who brings credentials in her own right to the job, along with tentacles into the web of connections her husband would not always have had without her. She also brings skills her husband simply did not have.
“Here’s what Teresa brings: she obviously brings a high level of credentials,” says David Alfin, the Palm Coast mayor who is also the immediate past president of the Education Foundation, who considered Joe his best friend, and who’d known the Rizzos for years, on and off the job. He spoke candidly Friday in an interview about both: “She brings obviously a career within the school district which is another credential Joe quite honestly didn’t have. What Teresa brings is an administrative and an organizational capability that was not Joe’s specialty. Joe was the engaging, beloved, hometown son of Palm Coast who was able to bring the Education Foundation to a higher level of awareness and financial stability in its portfolio, and his method was perfect for that. But just like Palm Coast is growing and on a path to the future, so is the Education Foundation. So bringing the administrative capabilities and organization structure to a rapidly growing Education Foundation, which is now financially well heeled, is exactly what is needed for its successful future.”
It is not an entirely fund-raising or a-political job: Joe Rizzo was a ubiquitous presence at school board meetings and events, often at other local government meetings and events, and the school board was relying on him, among others, to advance such initiatives as the coming renewal of the half-penny sales surtax. The district relies on that revenue to pay for its extensive technology initiatives for students. Alfin says Teresa Rizzo will be “critically important” in that effort.
As for fund-raising, “she brings with her the entire network that Joe has built because she was by his side the whole time,” Alfin said: every donor who knew and worked with Joe also knows Teresa. That’s continuity–and growth.
Rizzo was one of five finalists the board interviewed, out of nine applicants, only one of whom, Andrew Medearis, a teacher at Flagler Palm Coast High School, applied from within the district. None of the Foundation’s four full-time employees applied. (The four short-listed applicants were Dr. Perry Hilvitz, Marcia Fiorentino, Shantarra Houston and Medearis). Rizzo herself was not solicited to apply. “She initiated the application, the board came up with the qualifications and opened it. They did not openly ask anyone to apply,” Shelley Wheeler, the Foundation’s operations and database specialist said today.
“I have extensive leadership experience in the education sector and a record of success in getting initiatives off the ground and flourishing,” Rizzo wrote in her application’s cover letter, citing her work in the state Department of Education and “eleven years as an instructional leader at the elementary school level, where I led teachers and administrators at the school level in mentoring programs, instructional coaching, and community outreach programs.” She has been a media specialist in the schools as well as a teacher at Old Kings Elementary and Wadsworth Elementary.
Rizzo owned two retail shops previously, when she led “the charge in creating a non-profit group of merchants to attract new business to our Mainstreet establishment.” That was the group called first Fridays on E. Grenada, between 2008 and 2010. She’d owned a framing shop and a children’s wares shop in Ormond.
Rizzo was also the co-founder of Flagler EdCamp, another non-profit that provides professional education for educators, and a co-author with Stetson University faculty of a 2021 book on the effects of Covid on education.
The search committee, included Dr. Jennifer Thornton, current president of the Foundation board, Ann Marie Zweifel, Victoria Tiehen, Maria Lavin-Sanhudo, Jennifer Ames, and Ronald Tortelli. Rizzo will be paid a base salary of $85,000, a few thousand dollars less than Joe Rizzo’s base salary in his last year. Joe Rizzo was also benefiting from incentive pay based on each year’s fund-raising volume.
“We are honored to have a lifelong educator leading this organization into the future. Teresa’s passion for the children of Flagler County is apparent and will serve the Flagler County Education Foundation well,” the committee said in a statement quoted in a release issued by the Foundation on Thursday.
“I am honored to be chosen to continue and elevate the remarkable legacy of the Flagler County Education Foundation that flourished under the adored Joe Rizzo,” she said in the release. “The kids of Flagler County are our future. The foundation’s mission will continue to expand and provide opportunities kids might not have been afforded without the support of the foundation.” (See Rizzo’s resume here.)
According to her application package, Rizzo earned her B.A. in physical education from Mars Hill University in North Carolina in 1999, and her master’s in educational leadership from Stetson University in 2019, when she was invited to be a graduation speaker by the faculty.
Her references included somewhat of an all-star line-up that may have played a significant role in her hiring: Jacob Oliva, the former Flagler County Superintendent and current state school chancellor, Dusty Sims, a highly regarded former principal at Flagler palm Coast High School (the last highly regarded principal at that school) and a current Department of Education official, Phil DeAugustino, the veteran and by-now oracular guidance counselor at Flagler Palm Coast High School, and Anna Crawford, a former principal at Wadsworth.
“Teresa is able to build together high functioning teams that work toward a common goal. She is able to build relationships with all stakeholders,” Oliva wrote, a statement fleshed out in Crawford’s assessment: “Teresa and I worked side by side on most facets of leading a school. From creating the school’s budget and properly aligning federal and state dollars to meeting the challenges of working with some adults, and planning events for the entire school, Mrs. Rizzo has not only been exposed to these, but she quickly proved that she could be trusted to lead them!”
DeAugustino has intersected with the lives of the majority of people who’ve graduated from high school locally, including both Rizzo children. He has known Teresa and Joe Rizzo in that capacity, and has known Teresa Rizzo as a colleague in the district, but as a seasoned counselor, he delicately noted the obvious but difficult to say: “Teresa has applied for the position vacated by her husband’s passing. While I am confident this will motivate her to carry on his vision, she will have to balance the emotions that will naturally occur. That being said, I see this as a challenge for her, not an area of improvement.” (DeAugustino was answering a question on a form: “What areas do you feel this candidate could use some improvement?”)
“I am excited to see Mrs. Rizzo take this next step in her career, but even more excited for the school district, community and students she will without a doubt impact,” Sims wrote in his recommendation letter. “I recommend her without reservation.”
Rizzo will report both to the board of the Foundation and to Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt. She is taking over a Foundation that ended 2021 with assets of nearly $4 million, up from $2.9 million two years earlier, according to its latest audit, and revenue doubling to $543,000 in the same period. “The increases experienced in these years were primarily the result of strong community, corporate and private foundation support, as well as increased investment income in the current year,” a 2021 audit report states. There was a notable decrease in direct fundraising in 2021, presumably due to covid’s effect on limited in-person events, on which the Foundation relies several times a year. Notably, the Foundation added 58 pre-paid college scholarships in its Take Stock in Children program.
The Flagler County Education Foundation Board of Directors will host a meet-and-greet with Rizzo on May 24, between 3 and 6 p.m., at the Foundation’s offices on the second floor of the Government Services Building, 1769 East Moody Boulevard, Bunnell.