The Flagler County School Board on March 5 interviewed four superintendent candidates in its search for a replacement for Jim Tager. Each 90-minute interview is reported separately. Video of each complete interview appears below the article. The school district is still taking public comments about the candidates. You may send your comments to school board members in the email box provided in the body of the article. Here are links to the three other interviews:
Vernon Orndorff, a 12-year veteran of Flagler schools who rose to the No. 2 administrative position before taking a job in a small Texas district three years ago, was first up this morning among four candidates for superintendent interviewing with the Flagler County School Board.
Relaxed, sitting back and straight in in his chair and speaking without notes but largely–at times, too much–in generalities, Orndorff referred back and forth to his experience in Flagler and his more recent experience in the 250-student Milford school district in Texas to illustrate his leadership style and process-oriented, inclusive management approach. He spoke calmly, unassumingly.
“I’m not going to come in here with a predetermined plan,” he said. His intention is to work with everyone in the district and the board, to develop that plan, using “listening sessions” and being directly “engaged” (a word he used repeatedly) at various levels of top administrative responsibilities such as budgeting and recruiting. And he repeatedly spoke of keeping student success and employee enjoyment of their “passions” in mind: “I believing in serving and supporting and leading with the heart,” he said.
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Orndorff came to the interviews with several advantages: he was one of two of the four candidates who got all four school board members’ votes for an interview (St. Johns’s Cathy Mittelstadt was the other). His tenure in Flagler drew no controversies–he was often the administrator delegated to put out fires–and he knows that two current board members (Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker) were ready to vote for him as superintendent three years ago. So he may need just one more vote.
Tucker, in fact, indirectly worked with Orndorff last year. Tucker is a contractor with Educational Management Consultant Services, a company owned by Jerry Copland (the district’s negotiator in union contracts) that helps F-rated schools turn around. Orndorff filled in for two days for Tucker last year when Tucker was due to pitch contracts in Duval and Marion counties. Tucker disclosed the relationship at Tuesday’s workshop, and said he’d contacted and been cleared by the ethics commission last week, after a reporter asked him about it. (Tucker did not, however, specify that Orndorff had substituted for him; he only said they’d worked in the same company.) The substitution pre-dates the superintendent hiring process in Flagler. Orndorff then dropped in at the district to visit with former colleagues after his duties in Duval and Marion.
Unlike some candidates who’ve vied for the position in the past–and who haven’t necessarily been successful with the approach–Orndorff did not submit written plans for his first months, no analysis of where the district is or where it should be going, deferring to the near future to determine those paths through conversations, “review sessions” and “evaluations” in face to face conversations. He is not interested in what he called “positional power.”
The four board members asked questions in turn, each focusing on a particular area. Board member Colleen Conklin, who had applied for the superintendent position but was not selected to be interviewed, joined the board for a workshop on Tuesday but is not taking part in the interviews today. She will rejoin the board after it selects the next superintendent on March 10.
Board member Maria Barbosa asked Orndorff what philosophies and guidelines he’d apply when appointing principals, and how he’d handle wrongdoing.
“It starts with hiring employees,” he said, referring to his experience in Flagler building “leadership development” by recruiting, hiring and training employees. “During that hiring process you look for leaders.” Every employee, no matter what position, is initially vetted for leadership, through the district’s “inspiring leadership program.” Integrity and accountability are defining characteristics, as is an employee’s enjoyment of their work, he said.
As for conducting investigations into wrongdoing, he said it starts with “a system in place” and training leaders within in: state laws, school board rules, the code of ethics and the union contract frame that system. “You cannot act on emotions,” he said. Mistakes will be made, but systems and processes are designed ensure that “it’s not a flawed system in the way we investigate.” But he did not provide examples of that approach, nor did board members press him for one.
Asked about a five-year plan, he spoke again of process rather than any particular idea–of relying on data, “teams” and the “outcomes” the board is seeking, “as well as what is the district plan for operations.” Developing the goals would be a “collaborative” approach between the board, the directors and the superintendent.
“Our vision is that we will have the best two middle schools in the state of Florida, we’re not competing with each other, we’re collaborating with each other,” he said. “My last year at Indian Trails we were fortunate enough to have some dynamic teachers that came to me and said I think we’ve got a plan,” he continued, one that “developed a system that met all of our student’s needs and focused on those lower tiers.” (Indian Trails maintained an A throughout Orndorff’s tenure there from July 2010 to April 2013).
He was directly involved in the half-cent sales tax campaign several years ago–a tax the board will seek to renew during the next superintendent’s tenure. The tax revenue pays for the district’s technology initiatives. He said he’ll review the “rate of return” from the revenue that funded the district’s one-to-one initiative (the initiative that placed a computer or tablet in the hands of every student), “and what is the vision of the board and the community and the parents in moving that forward. In my mind, one of the questions I would ask, is how has one to one improved student outcomes, how has one to one supported the vision of the flagship programs.” He is committed to “growing” the one-to-one program, seeing technology as “a tool that we use for outcomes.” One idea: possibly partnering with municipalities to create “a civic center, a music theater,” if that’s what the community wants.
Dance asked him about his management leadership style. “I want our employees to enjoy their jobs,” he said. “They know they’re going to be well supported. There’s integrity involved in every position employed by a school district. You are held to a higher standard.” The end in mind is to have successful students through “servantry and support. And I know those are buzzwords but when you model it people start believing in you.”
On Exceptional Student Education in the district, he spoke of research-based training to support students with various needs to help them transition to college, careers or the military: ‘Every student,” he said, making no distinction in that regard between ESE and other students.
He also addressed the F his school district in Texas received, though the answer was somewhat confusing: “There were certain targets that our district weren’t aware of that we totally missed,” he said. He developed a “quality curriculum” typing standards to every grade level, and a tracking system. “You had to change the mindset of students that they can achieve that grade level” while changing the mindsets of teachers, he said. “The impact of two students not meeting grade level has a huge level has a huge impact for our third grade scores,” he said, describing a system where one classroom adds up to a whole grade level.
Along similar lines, Dance asked him how he would translate leadership in a 250-student district to a 13,000-student district. The answer formed Orndorff’s closing statement: that his 12 years in Flagler prepared him to be a superintendent elsewhere, and that experience in turn prepared him to be superintendent locally. “I’m not running from anything. I’m in a very good situation,” Orndorff said, despite being “under the microscope,” down to “little Vernon” forgetting his lunch on a particular day (he was presumably referring to a theoretical first grader named Vernon). Moving to superintendent in a larger district is a matter of “building those teams.” He also noted that he’d been “responsible for 1,600 employees and 13,000 students as an executive director for three years in Flagler.”