Conklin, Orndorff and Johnson should be scratched from superintendent search, ESE board says

Flagler Schools' appointed search committee was 'negligent' in vetting the candidates, ESE board says.

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Updated 12:15 p.m. Feb. 18 with Earl Johnson's rebuttal to the EPAC report.

The Community Advisory Panel members have been “negligent in their responsibilities” to vet candidates under consideration to be the next Flagler Schools superintendent, overlooking flaws in popular local candidates, according to a contrary report made by the ESE Parent Advisory Council.

The report says EPAC members, unlike CAP members, did extensive research beyond the candidates’ resumes and applications. EPAC recommends that three of CAP’s top choices — Vernon Orndorff, Colleen Conklin and Earl Johnson — should be eliminated from consideration.

EPAC accuses CAP members of favoring local candidates “based on name familiarity or personal relationship.” The CAP itself did not include enough parents “who are not employed by local government,” EPAC says.


Three candidates in common

EPAC supports three candidates who were also finalists from the School Board-appointed CAP:

  • Cathy Mittelstadt, a Palm Coast resident and deputy superintendent in St. Johns County;
  • Janet Womack, an educational consultant in Texas and former superintendent of a district in Alabama;
  • Ron Wagner, a Minneapolis school district associate superintendent.

EPAC also supported three candidates who were not among CAP’s finalists: Wayne Alexander, Anthony Pack and Raymond Bryant.

Stephen Furnari, chairperson of EPAC, said all six of EPAC’s finalists received nearly equal support, and he hopes the School Board will consider them. (The School Board is not obligated to follow either CAP’s or EPAC’s suggestions.)

CAP’s 20 members gave Mittelstadt 14 votes of support, tied with Orndorff’s 14 for first place. EPAC described Mittelstadt as a “decisive leader” who was supportive of training and collaboration to benefit exceptional students education needs.


Orndorff's track record

Orndorff, a former administrator in Flagler Schools who is now superintendent of a 270-student school district in Texas called Milford ISD, was not favored by EPAC. (Flagler Schools has about 12,000 students and a $100 million budget.)

His Texas district has fallen from an acceptable state rating to a failing state rating “under his leadership,” EPAC’s research found.

To his credit, Orndorff received a letter of recommendation from his predecessor at Milford ISD, Don Clingenpeel, who praised Orndorff's "relentless work ethic" and called him a "visionary leader."

But EPAC members feel that while he was at Flagler Schools, interests of ESE were “poorly managed," Orndorff’s EPAC questionnaire responses were mostly “fluff”; and EPAC generally prefers a candidate without Flagler "relationships and loyalties."

At its most recent meeting, several CAP members said Orndorff received positive reviews from district employees.


Perplexed by Conklin

Conklin, who has been a Flagler County School Board member for 20 years, should be disqualified because of her lack of district-level experience, EPAC says.

EPAC members were “perplexed” by Conklin’s decision to apply for superintendent in the first place. She must have known that she didn’t have the appropriate qualifications to be superintendent and that her application would throw the search process into disarray to the detriment of the community, the report says. Members worry that the decision to apply may be indicative of a tendency to act with good intentions but without considering unintended consequences.

She also didn’t respond to EPAC’s questionnaire, which disqualified her from EPAC’s support.

In her letter of application, Conklin presented her experience in this light: "After 29 years of experience in K-20 education, nonprofit management, elected office, and higher education, I believe that I have a deep understanding of what the customers of education want and deserve." She is currently executive director of the Gaetz Aerospace Institute, a dual enrollment/outreach program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, partnering with 156 secondary schools in 44 school districts.  


Trust issues with Johnson

Johnson, Flagler Schools' executive director of leadership development, was either complicit with or negligent of the sexual harassment complaints against former Belle Terre Principal Dr. Terence Culver, EPAC found. (Culver retired while under investigation last year.) Johnson should therefore be disqualified from consideration for the superintendent position, EPAC says.

“Members of EPAC expressed that, through direct dealings with Johnson, they believed that he was adept at making written complaints from parents or staff disappear for the benefit of the district, but avoided resolving the difficult, systemic issues that underlie those very problems,” the report states.

Whether these accusations against Johnson are true, Furnari is confident that’s what the staff believes. “There is a huge portion of staff that do not trust him,” he said.

“We know the complaints [against Culver] went to HR and that this has been going on since at least 2012, so to say Johnson is not aware that these things are going on, or that he allowed these things to happen without removing Culver — it creates problems with him. Is that who you want as your district leader?”

Johnson spoke with the Palm Coast Observer on Feb. 18 to respond to the allegations. He pointed out that he was not appointed to his district responsibilities till 2017, and since then he has not been involved in the investigation of Culver.

"At no time have I ever received a complaint of sexual harassment from a staff member or any other person about Dr. Culver," Johnson said.

On the contrary, Johnson said he has been responsive to complaints that he has received in general. One informal complaint from a staff member occurred on Aug. 29, and he and the HR director drove to the school to speak with the staff member and helped to resolve the concern the following day.

Of the accusations of distrust made in the EPAC report, Johnson said, "I don't know what to say. I have never heard of any such thing. My reputation speaks for itself. When I was principal at Matanzas, I had a good reputation, not only with the faculty and staff but with students. So I'm not sure what he [Furnari] is speaking of. ... The accusations that have been written about me are not true at all."

In his application to the district, Johnson touted his track record: He helped take Volusia's Turie T. Small Elementary School from a D to a B in one year as a principal; he increased dual enrollment by 61% as a Matanzas High School principal; and has helped increase graduation rate of students with disabilities from 56% to 76% in his current role with the district.


Shaping the next generation

Furnari shared the EPAC’s report with the Palm Coast Observer and also sent the report to the School Board and other district leaders and stakeholders.

“The selection of the next superintendent will shape the lives of a generation of Flagler students, and it will have a meaningful impact on our community's future,” Furnari wrote. “ … The EPAC Board hopes that you give this report serious consideration as you embark on this important decision.”


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