Last Updated: 2:53 p.m.
For the eighth time in 15 years, Flagler Palm Coast High School will have a new principal when school starts in August. And for the second time in two years, the new principal–Tom Russell–is an import from Volusia County, where the school board just pushed him out after a four-and-a-half year tenure, some of it as boss of Jim Tager, Flagler’s superintendent for the past two years.
Russell follows the brief and somewhat disconnected tenure of Bob Wallace, whom Tager tapped out of retirement at the beginning of the school year after Dusty Sims won a job with the state Department of Education. Wallace never quite fit in or seemed as visible as previous principals through a year buffeted by a series of security emergencies. And between his firing last week, his Wallace-like history in Volusia, and the fact that he’s yet another older white guy taking over what amounts to Flagler County’s most diverse city-sized institution, Russell’s appointment was bound to raise questions, as it quickly did on social media when word began to spread this morning.
But to understand the appointment, it’s worth seeing it through the eyes of Dave Halliday, the track coach at Flagler Palm Coast High School and–oddly–the only member of FPC’s faculty to sit on the seven-person committee that interviewed Russell. The six others were all senior administrators at the district office, along with Tager: Lynette Shott, Ryan Diesing, Diane Dyer, Ben Osypian and Earl Johnson. Shott had been a principal at FPC before Sims.
Halliday, a 15-year veteran of the school who’s seen every one of those principals go through the revolving door, is as FPC as it gets. He feels protective of the school, from where his children graduated, he’s the school’s graduation coach, he’s outspoken, and he was “Highly skeptical” going into the committee interview with Russell.
But Russell pulled a Brutus: He killed it. He turned Halliday around and won over the committee, beating out three familiar and internal candidates.
During the interview process, the team said, “he was hungry, humble and smart,” according to Tager in an interview this morning. “It was 100 percent Tom Russell, unanimous, around the table.”
Was Tager blowing smoke about a former colleague? Not at all: Halliday spoke almost the same words about Russell and even exceeded Tager’s charaterizations in some regards. “Yes, 100 percent he was the candidate of choice,” Halliday said. “Being as skeptical as I was his interview was by far the best. His knowledge of education, his knowledge of Flagler Palm Coast and Flagler County, for obviously somebody who’s an outsider, was very impressive.” Russell was one of five applicants. The others were Latasha Bowens of Nease High School, Mike Rinaldi and Keri Sands of FPC, and Travis Lee of Rymfire Elementary.
“Every time a question would come up he would nail it,” Halliday said. “I was basically dumbfounded that he’d read the school improvement plan ahead of time and had gleaned much of the inner framework of how the school does work and is supposed to work. As far as somebody who does his homework, I was very impressed with that.”
Among the elements that stood out for Russell: his energy, his student-centered approach, and more than anything for Tager, his commitment to end principals’ revolving door at FPC and stay up to seven years.
“I said Tom, what can you tell the committee that would make me believe that you will stay the course there, and what is the course,” Tager said he asked Russell. “He said ‘I want to be there five, six, seven years, I never want to work for a district office again.’ His heart is in being a building principal, and frankly, we asked the same series of questions to all five applicants. There was no fault in any answer that he had. He just struck me as genuine, and he will put in the work, and I think that school needs somebody who is highly visible, and he will do that.”
As for his recent firing–the Volusia board cited Russell’s lack of communications among its concerns–Tager said: “I have my own thoughts on what happened to him there but I would tell you about my dealings with Tom Russell is that you couldn’t get anybody of higher character, you won’t get anybody that’s more dedicated.” Tager added: “He is the type of person I would want around my son. So I would feel like I’m not sure he got a real fair shake. I will say that on the record. But I feel like the volume of his work is amazing.”
Russell,59, addressed his firing only in general terms in an interview this afternoon, describing it as a “six-week process,” and seeing it as a different direction for board members than as a reflection of his own work. He said his tenure as superintendent outlasted the average tenure. “With my departure, I have handled it professionally, with integrity, I burned no bridges. I care about kids, I care about people,” he said.
And going from a job that paid $175,000 to one that will pay $101,000, he said, is not an issue. “My wife and I are pretty frugal, and I’m just happy to be doing what I want to do. I’m at the point in life where to me that’s very important,” Russell said.
He was categorical when asked if he’d be seeking the superintendent’s job when the Flagler School Board begins its search later this year, since Tager is term-limited: he is due to retire at the end of June 2020, at least for six months.
“Absolutely not,” Russell said: he will not even apply. “I had to answer that question as well, to many people today. I am going to FPC because I want to be principal. I love being principal. I always did.” He had a conversation with his wife after he lost his job in Volusia and told her he wanted to go back to a school–but a particular kind of school.
“They are the traditional schools in their region,” he said, referring to two high schools in other counties, “and FPC, like those schools, is an IB school. And that really spoke to me as well as being very strong in the arts, being very strong in the community, and for me that’s the type of school I wanted to go to. I didn’t randomly apply.”
That said, he acknowledged obstacles ahead. “I’m an outsider and I get it, and I get their apprehension and I understand it and I do respect it,” he said. “I have to prove myself to them and I know it will take some time. Saying all that, that ties into how I communicate, and I’m very visible, very visible. Th kids will tell you that.”
In an email he sent the FPC staff, he addressed himself to the “FPC family,” introduced himself by name, and said he was “both ecstatic and humbled to be appointed as the principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School as of July 1st. I am ecstatic because it is exciting to become part of a team that has a long tradition of serving so many families in Flagler County. I am humbled because the members of the school board and Superintendent Tager have entrusted me with the opportunity to serve the school and its community.” He referred to his seven years in the classroom and 21 years as an administrator, and to an overriding lesson he learned along the way: “to serve others while following the Golden Rule—treat others as you want to be treated.”
“He signed off with “Go Dawgs.”
Russell’s appointment means that all three appointments of high school principals during Tager’s tenure have been from Volusia (Tager appointed Jeff Reeves at Matanzas soon after becoming superintendent). Tager was asked what those appointments say about Flagler’s leadership bench: why not recruit from within?
“If you look at Anna Crawford [at Wadsworth Elementary], LaShakia Moore [Rymfire Elementary], you look at Bobby Bossardet [Buddy Taylor Middle], you look at Katie Crooke [Old Kings],” Tager said. “I’ve made four internal hires as principal since I’ve been here, and the two high schools have been external. We want to have somebody that can do that job at some point. Tom was by far our best candidate.” He added: “To be a high school principal, particularly a school of that size–I’ve heard you reference it yourself as a small city–that is a job that you’re going to need somebody that you’re very comfortable to be there and handle the things that come up on a day to day basis.”
Tager clearly sees his internal appointments as rising stars, but stars not yet ready to shine on the district’s largest school campus, even though Crawford and Bossardet had been assistant principals at FPC.
“We’ve got a couple of those people that I mentioned that are principals now, that I promoted, Crawford and Bossardet in particular, that have experience at that school, but neither one applied,” Tager said. “To their credit they want to build the places they’re at, and that serves them well too. We have talent here. Four of the six have been local hires. But for this particular job, Tom just rose to the top.” As for Russell’s promised longevity at FPC locking the way to further rises internally, Tager said that leadership will still have its time.
Tager and Russell’s own rise in Volusia was on parallel tracks, with each serving as principal in middle and high schools before ending up at the district office, where Tager briefly reported to Russell. The superintendent sought to reassure against the perception that FPC is pasture for retiring Volusia administrators. “I think that Tom’s presence will speak for himself,” Tager said.
Halliday noted Russell’s understanding of “traditional” high schools that represent their community. Russell compared FPC to Sanford-Seminole high, and to DeLand high, and told the committee he intends to respect and reflect that tradition–and to be more visible at school and community events.
Halliday summed up his impressions of Russell as a “very dynamic, charismatic leader, which is something that we were looking for. Obviously people are going to be a little bit like, huh? Are we bringing someone else from elsewhere.” But once people meet Russell, Halliday said, “just like it changed my mind, I think it’s going to change people’s minds if they give him a chance.”
Russell is inviting staff, students and residents to a meet and greet at FPC next Friday between 9 and 11 a.m.