Winnie Oden, a Flagler County educator who left her mark in classrooms, as a principal, as a district administrator and school safety consultant and, for a brief time, as a Flagler County School Board member, died on Friday. She had just turned was 75 at the beginning of the month.
Oden–who was officially known as Juanita Winnie Oden–had a mind of her own, opinions to spare and the kind of foresight that led to champion safety and security well before the Parkland massacre. She was as outspoken as she was irrepressible, and did not mind ruffling a feather or two–going as far as suing her own school board when she was serving on it.
“I enjoyed working with Winnie during my tenure at the school district. We bonded due to our passion for safety during her tenure as transportation Director,” Andy Dance, who served 12 years on the Flagler County School Board and currently chairs the County Commission, said. “She convinced me to attend the community traffic safety team meetings, and I quickly became a regular.
“It was at that time that we came up with the idea for me, as a school board member, to attend the bus driver training sessions along with the new applicants. I completed the training and learned a lot about the focus on safety at the bus driver level. At her urging I became chairman of the CtST when an opening occurred, and have been chair of that committee since. I recently went to see her at her house, she called me to check on a drainage issue that she had in her swale. She was still working on school safety issues at Imagine School at the time of her passing. We lost a passionate safety advocate with Winnie’s passing.”
Flagler schools hired Oden in 1990 as a Teacher on Assignment, when she worked at Old Kings Elementary School. She was a dean at Buddy Taylor Middle School from for a few months in 1991, a Resource Specialist at Old Kings Elementary for a year, doing a similar job at the district office for three years until 1995, when she took a teaching job at Bunnell Elementary, which lasted only a matter of weeks.
Gov. Lawton Chiles in September 1995 appointed Oden to the board to complete the term of E.W. Andy Anderson, who had died. She was to serve until the November 1996 election. She got an unpaid leave of absence from her teaching job at Bunnell Elementary, getting paid the annual salary of $17,786 that went to board members at the time.
But the school board in April 1996 voted 2-1 to deny her the six-month extension of her leave so she could complete the term. Nancy Dance and Rich Marier voted to deny, with Marier claiming it would set a bad precedent to grant a leave for another paying job. They went against Superintendent Donn Kaupke’s recommendation to grant the extension. Theda Wilson voted to grant the extension. Never one to shy from a confrontation, Oden sued in circuit court.
But just as the 1996 school year began, Kaupke offered what amounted to an odd compromise: she would voluntarily relinquish her job on Kaupke’s promise that he would reinstate it immediately after her board appointment expired that Nov. 19. “I think this compromise was in the best interests of the district and it was done in the spirit of moving ahead,” she was quoted as saying at the time, after the district had spent $8,500 on the dispute.
Oden then decided to run to retain her seat, challenging Wilson. Wilson beat her with 52 percent of the vote, with Dance also re-elected, along with Jim Guines and Joel Rosen. It was the first time that the board ended up with an all-Republican membership, previewing what was to come for many other local government boards.
Oden returned to teaching, taking up various teaching assignments at Flagler Palm coast High School, Belle Terre Elementary and Buddy Taylor Middle School over the net ew years, before returning to the dean’s position at Buddy Taylor in 2001. She rose to assistant principal there late that year, and became principal in 2005, a position she held until 2012.
She was the principal at Pathways, the alternative school at the time, from July 2012 to December 2013, and Principal on Assignment from January 2014 to November 2015, serving as transportation and safety director for a time before she retired. She was a fierce advocate for school resource deputies and took her role as a safety specialist very seriously in her latter years with the district. She continued in her role as a safety consultant for a while. In 2018, the Palm Coast Elks Lodge recognized her safety consultant role with an award.
“She meant so much to this district over the years,” Jason Wheeler, the school district’s chief spokesman, said today. “I’ve known her before even starting to work here, I remember knowing her when I was at News 13 and she was at Pathways.” Oden was a fellow University of Alabama graduate, Wheeler noted.
Oden raised two children and had been, among other involvements, a board member of the Holocaust Education Center of Volusia and Flagler, Inc. More than two decades ago she wrote columns for the News-Tribune, writing about bullying, friendship, the teen years, her father, graduation, anger-management, car-shopping, tolerance: “If you were to shake out my purse, rifle through my desk or even meander inside my junk drawer, you’d find bits and pieces of information that might spark an idea for a column,” she’d once written.
At the turn of the millennium she thought of starting an organization called the Ladder brigade. “I’ve decided life is like a ladder. We’re either going up or down the rungs, depending on what curves life throws at us. If you don’t apply the right energy, you remain fixed on one rung,” she wrote. “If you have the wrong attitude, you drop down. Occasionally, you need a friend or family member to boost you up a level. Oftentimes, the same people or just circumstances force you down a rung or two. I think the Ladder Brigade would be a great support group whose only goal would be to help boost you to the next level. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll book a meeting place!”