The days since the School Board’s 3-2 decision not to renew Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract have been roiled by accusations and innuendos about the motivations of board members and the local chamber of commerce, which issued a statement of no confidence in Mittelstadt before the vote.
School Board members said the acrimony has eroded trust on the board and could impede its ability to move forward.
School Board Chair Cheryl Massaro, who opposed the vote not to renew Mittelstadt’s contract, said in a video posted on her Facebook page on April 10 that she believed the three board members who’d voted not to renew Mittelstadt’s contract “are not making decisions in support of Flagler Schools, our children, their families, staff and the community,” and suggested that the chamber’s no-confidence statement was motivated by frustrations about the district’s impact fees rather than its academics.
We're right back where we started a couple years ago, with a very split board. And I don't see it changing, because I don't think there's the capacity for change.”
— CHERYL MASSARO, School Board chair
Board member Will Furry, who had made the board motion not to renew Mittelstadt’s contract during a special meeting on April 4, told the Observer that he considered Massaro’s video statement “unbecoming of a board chair.”
When local elected boards replace the leader of their organization, Massaro told the Observer, they try to attract the best talent and get a unanimous board vote in favor of the new employee.
But the board’s division, and news coverage surrounding Mittelstadt’s nonrenewal, will make both of those objectives hard, she said.
“The number one goal is to get a 5-0 vote (to hire). That’s going to be very difficult,” she said. “And then you have to look at who’s going to want to come to Flagler County. … They see all this stuff in the press about it, I don’t think we’re going to get the cream of the crop.”
She was also pessimistic about the School Board’s future.
“We were kind of pulling it together as much as we possibly could,” Massaro said. “But at this point, we’re right back where we started a couple years ago, with a very split board. And I don’t see it changing, because I don’t think there’s the capacity for change.”
THE CHAMBER STATEMENT
On March 28, Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Blosé emailed School Board members and Mittelstadt to say that the chamber’s board of directors had voted to issue a statement of no confidence in Mittelstadt.
Disclosure: Observer Publisher John Walsh is a chamber board member and helped draft the statement.
Blosé also read the statement at a School Board workshop that afternoon.
It said the chamber had two expectations of the district — consistent, high-quality education, and “great relationships and trust between administration and faculty, staff, students, families and community members” — and that Mittelstadt had “failed to reach these objectives successfully.”
Just like any other organization, we have a position, and we're allowed to voice our position — and we did."
— GREG BLOSÉ, president and CEO, Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce
It gave few details, and its vagueness invited speculation.
At the School Board’s special meeting on April 4, Blosé spoke again, this time citing state statistics about the district’s academic performance.
Blosé was one of only two speakers to oppose Mittelsadt out of more than 30 who addressed the board during the April 4 meeting’s public comment period (the other, a pastor who began voicing objections to the superintendent’s same-sex marriage, was quickly silenced by Massaro for engaging in personal attacks.)
But Blosé said he was representing the chamber’s board, which had voted 8-0, with three abstentions and two other members not participating, in favor of the chamber’s no-confidence statement, public records revealed.
One School Board member, Sally Hunt, cited Blosé’s remarks in her decision to vote against Mittelstadt’s contract renewal.
“When you hear from someone like Greg Blosé, he is relevant in this conversation because there is a relationship between the schools and the larger community,” Hunt said before the vote.
Another School Board member, Will Furry, noted repeatedly in a formal evaluation of Mittelstadt, dated March 31, that he had concerns about Mittelstadt’s relationships with the business community and “community stakeholders.”
But Massaro and Conklin were unimpressed with Blosé’s presentation.
Massaro called his figures “weak and unexplainable data” that didn’t account for the impact of the pandemic.
She noted chamber members’ involvement in a fight last year against the school district’s attempts to increase school impact fees paid by developers, implying that Blosé’s comments about the district’s academic performance were cover for the chamber’s dissatisfaction with Mittelstadt over impact fees.
“Flagler has a select group of individuals running the county, and that’s not a good thing. And now they’re pushing themselves into the school systems,” she said in an interview with the Observer. “… And we finally had a superintendent that would stand up to the good ol’ boys. And that’s what it comes down to.”
She also noted that Hunt had spoken with local principal Paul Peacock about terminating Mittelstadt’s contract and finding a new superintendent, and that Peacock had filed a grievance against Mittelstadt and was represented by local attorney Michael Chiumento III, vice chair of the chamber’s board.
“There’s the link. That’s where it all started,” she said.
Am I happy with all the test results over the past couple of years? No. And I doubt any superintendent is. But we all recognize our students, teachers, and staff are just now finally getting into an educational routine following the upheaval post-pandemic.”
— CATHY MITTELSTADT, Flagler Schools superintendent
Blosé and Chiumento both noted that Chiumento is only one member on the chamber’s board.
“These (chamber) board members all have their own rationale, and it’s not Paul Peacock and it’s not Mike Chiumento,” Blosé said.
Other community members also treated the chamber’s statement with suspicion.
On April 10, local resident Merrill Shapiro started a Change.org petition calling on the chamber to “acknowledge your conflict of interest” about impact fees when speaking about the school district. The petition had 186 signatures as of the morning of April 12.
Garry Lubi, the chair of the chamber’s board of directors, declined to comment on the petition.
Blosé acknowledged that the impact fee fight was one factor in the chamber’s decision, but denied that it was the only or the primary factor — or that, as Shapiro’s petition suggested, the chamber should have to acknowledge it as a conflict of interest when speaking out on school district related issues.
“Just like any other organization, we have a position, and we’re allowed to voice our position — and we did,” Blosé said. “It [the impact fee background] is on our website. It’s public record.”
He added, “The chamber’s involvement in impact fees is to make sure that the impact fees are fair and legally defensible in court and that the assumptions made by consultants are accurate. And many of those times, those assumptions are not accurate. So, we bring those instances to light.”
Chamber members felt that the school district had been basing its proposed impact fee increase on unrealistic student population projections.
Asked if he felt like communicating with the school district and Mittelstadt differed significantly from communicating with the heads of other local government entities about impact fees, Blosé replied, “Yes, I do. Because we originally had meetings planned with the superintendent to talk to her about impact fees when it first came out. And then those meetings were canceled as we got closer.”
Conklin said no chamber board members had ever approached her or the School Board with concerns about the district’s academic performance since 2021.
Blosé and chamber board members had addressed the School Board during the school impact fee dispute, but largely about development issues rather than academics — until the March 28 statement, according to School Board meeting minutes since the chamber’s August 2020 founding.
“To hear such concerns in a public forum without the opportunity to discuss them felt nothing short of a sucker punch to the gut,” Conklin wrote in a letter emailed to the chamber’s board and to the local press as an opinion column (read it HERE).
“Looking at the scores that the chamber has shared, and the academic achievement that Greg shared in his presentation and talking tonight, it’s critically important to remember that was the first year back in school, post-COVID,” Conklin said before the April 4 vote.
Mittelstadt said she’d spoken with Blosé about his concerns with the district’s academics in 2020, but not recently until after the statement was issued.
“Am I happy with all the test results over the past couple of years? No,” she wrote in a statement to the Observer. “And I doubt any superintendent is. But we all recognize our students, teachers, and staff are just now finally getting into an educational routine following the upheaval post-pandemic.”
The data is showing that this district is moving in the right direction. The evidence is crystal clear.”
— COLLEEN CONKLIN, School Board vice chair
She said there had been opportunities for her to answer chamber board members’ questions. But, she said, “No one had brought up any concerns or asked us to explain how this data is collected and what it means.”
“I am confident we have Flagler Schools headed in the right direction as we move past the pandemic,” she said, “which could not have been done without the support of all our teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and students.”
Blosé characterized references to the academic impacts of the pandemic as excuses.
“At the end of the day, are 50% of third graders reading at grade level, or not?” Blosé said to the Observer. “How long does the COVID excuse last?”
Blosé cited four Florida Standards Assessment scores at the April 4 meeting: eighth grade reading, which he said dropped from 62% reaching proficiency in 2019 to 49% in 2022; eighth grade math, which rose slightly from 49% in 2019 to 51% in 2022; eighth grade science, which dropped from 54% in 2019 to 50% in 2022; and third grade reading, which dropped from 68% in 2019 to 58% in 2022.
“The data about the performance of our education system is not pretty and is not something we would prefer to scream from the mountaintop or microphone,” he said at the April 4 meeting. “… Consider those facts, and you’ll understand in part why the business community is concerned.”
A review of the school district’s 2022 scores relative to the state average in all 16 English language arts, math and science Florida Standards Assessment categories showed that Flagler Schools exceeded the state average in 14 categories and matched the state average in the remaining two (eighth grade ELA, at 49%, and 10th grade ELA, also at 49%).
Statewide average scores dropped from 2019 to 2022 in all 16 categories. They dropped in Flagler in 12 categories, increased in three categories (fourth grade English language arts, fourth grade math and eighth grade math) and stayed the same in one (fifth grade English language arts).
In two subjects — fourth grade math and fifth grade math — Flagler Schools went from performing below the state average in 2019 to performing above the state average in 2022.
The outrage is really, I think, from a very small percentage of the community that is a little bit louder than the majority at the moment.”
— WILL FURRY, School Board member
Many of the district’s scores were in the top 10 or 15 of the state’s 67 counties, Conklin said at the April 4 meeting.
“… Yes, the score that was a 58% on the reading for grade three — we were still ranked 13th in the state. Thirteen out of 67,” she said. “Fifty-eight is not great. Nobody is saying it’s great. But you have to put it in context to be fair — it’s post-COVID. And it’s, if you look at it, 13 out of 67 counties.”
She also listed the categories in which Flagler had scored in the top 10 — sixth grade math, eighth grade math — and the top 15: third grade reading, fourth grade reading, sixth grade reading, seventh grade reading, seventh grade math and biology.
“The data is showing that this district is moving in the right direction,” Conklin said. “The evidence is crystal clear.”
Board members Christy Chong and Will Furry told the Observer that they thought the crowd that backed Mittelstadt in the board chambers on April 4 wasn’t a reliable indicator of public sentiment.
“We have to hear everybody, and the 30 people there alone don’t represent the 120,000 people in Flagler County, especially those that overwhelmingly voted for us,” Chong said.
“I think despite the fact of Ms. Hunt’s many interactions with principal Peacock, this was a fair and balanced decision,” Furry said. “If we’re taking it from the perspective of party affiliation, this was a nonpartisan vote; you had two Republicans and a Democrat majority vote on this. The outrage is really, I think, from a very small percentage of the community that is a little bit louder than the majority at the moment.”
Conklin said a superintendent search and leadership change is disruptive, and “impacts every aspect of the school district.”
“But it is what it is, and we are going to have to come up with a plan on how to move forward,” she said.