- May 9, 2023
Flagler County School Board member Sally Hunt and Wadsworth Elementary School Principal Paul Peacock maneuvered together to try to hasten a vote on Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract, text messages show.
Peacock — who filed a grievance against Mittelstadt and the district after a demotion, and has threatened to sue the district — messaged Hunt a "script" of specific instructions on how to make a board motion to terminate Mittelstadt's contract. Peacock had also introduced Hunt to Dusty Sims, former principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School, and Hunt had asked Sims about his interest in taking Mittelstadt’s position, should it become open.
On Feb. 22, the day Peacock texted her the “script,” Hunt pushed to expedite a discussion on the contract, telling her fellow board members without mentioning Peacock that she had been "hearing ... certain things" from staff and felt the district was running out of time to act on the contract.
But board members Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin cautioned her against moving too fast, even though both had said at a Feb. 7 workshop that they wanted to start discussions about Mittelstadt’s contract, which expires at the end of June. Mittelstadt urged the board members to wait until after she provides them with her self-evaluation report.
The board is now scheduled to discuss the contract on April 4. Immediately after an April 4 workshop discussion, the board will vote in a special meeting that will likely decide Mittelstadt’s future with the district.
Hunt and Peacock had been exchanging texts since before she was sworn in as a School Board member on Nov. 22.
The Observer received the texts through a public records request. They can be viewed HERE.
Hunt did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment about the texts, but she did send an email to the Observer on the evening of March 31, after this story was initially published earlier in the day.
She wrote that she reached out to the Florida School Board Association for guidance on School Board matters, which include the superintendent's contract.
“I have a trusted peer advisor through FSBA who I speak with frequently. The majority of my conversations with Mr. Peacock have been on the topics of safety and operational efficiency,” Hunt wrote.
“There is no conspiracy here, only a dedicated school board member,” Hunt added.
Peacock has been outspoken about his dissatisfaction with Mittelstadt’s leadership.
His grievance concerned a $7,500 supplement he said was owed to him from when he was a chief negotiator with the district. The grievance was ongoing during his February messaging with Hunt. The board voted down his appeal on March 28.
In an interview with the Observer and again at his appeal hearing, Peacock said the grievance was primarily about restoring his reputation after a demotion and a termination as a negotiator.
Peacock acknowledged that he helped set up a meeting between Hunt and Sims, after which Hunt asked Sims if he would be interested in the superintendent position.
Peacock sent Sims’ contact information to Hunt as early as Nov. 7, and again on Feb. 10.
Sims, who is now the Florida Department of Education’s lead state executive director for school improvement, told the Observer that becoming a superintendent had been his goal when he became an administrator 14 years ago, though he said that might have since “changed a little bit.”
But when Hunt asked him, he said, he replied that “the conversation could go no further,” since the position wasn’t open.
Hunt’s conversation with Sims occurred Feb. 16, a week before the Feb. 22 workshop in which Hunt asked her fellow board members about accelerating the timeline for a vote on Mittelstadt’s contract.
On Feb. 17, she visited Wadsworth, noting in a log of her visits that she had “requested meeting with Paul Peacock for questions regarding Dusty Sims (from my 2/16 meeting with Dusty to discuss his possible interest in the Flagler Schools superintendent role should the board or Superintendent Mittlestadt not renew the contract).”
On Feb. 19, Hunt texted Peacock a screenshot of a news story that appeared to show Sims in the audience of a School Board meeting in Brevard County, which is seeking a new superintendent.
“Mornin,” she wrote. “Looks like Dusty at a Brevard school board meeting early Dec, so I’m guessing Brevard has been on the table for a while. Looks like that would be a big job. Flagler would be a cakewalk by comparison.”
Hunt’s first text to Peacock on Feb. 22 came minutes before the 1 p.m. workshop, when she told him that School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin “advised I need a supermajority to officially place an item on the agenda” at that evening’s board meeting.
A supermajority would be four out of the five School Board members.
At 4:01 p.m., Peacock sent Hunt a photograph of a computer screen showing an email or document that contained instructions on how she could bring up the contract discussion during the “old business” or “new business” agenda items at the meeting.
The email or document had been sent to Peacock by a third party, he said.
The screen shot is difficult to read. At the top, it said, “Script,” and a few lines down, it said, “Under new or old.” That was followed by a list of five numbered steps. The first said: “Make motion to discuss and address Super’s contract. If second, then you can discuss and address.”
No. 2 on the list said, “After discussion, make motion to terminate and get the second. Once there is a second, it has to be voted on or withdrawn.”
In a phone interview on Friday, March 31, Peacock said the screenshot was an explanation of Robert’s Rules of Order to help Hunt get a vote on the contract as early as the Feb. 22 evening board meeting.
Because of legal reasons, Peacock said, he did not want to reveal who had sent him that message.
“I don't know if legally I can divulge that information. That might put me in a situation. You know, like, again, illegally providing information from another … I don't know. I don't know if legally I can give that information.”
He said the object was to get the contract up for a vote, not necessarily to terminate Mittelstadt’s contract.
“There's five people on the board, and it takes three votes,” he said. “But yes, get it before the board for a vote. I can say this, no one gave me any indication of where they stood.”
When Hunt brought up the topic of Mittelstadt’s contract at the Feb. 22 workshop, board members Massaro and Conklin pushed back, noting that Hunt and board members Christy Chong and Will Furry are all new, first-term school board members, and urging Hunt to wait for more information on Mittelstadt.
After the workshop drew to a close, at 5:59 p.m., Hunt sent a text to Peacock asking, “Are you watching this?”
Peacock responded, “Yes I watch the whole thing I can’t believe they talked to you that way. We have to regroup. Gavin totally represented Mittelstadt. We need outside counsel. Too many thoughts to put down in a text.”
At the School Board business meeting that evening, Hunt asked a procedural question about future board discussions of the contract. But she did not make a motion.
The following morning, Peacock asked Hunt in a text how she was doing.
Hunt answered, “Upset I wasn’t more assertive.”
Peacock responded, “Let’s re-group. That was an ambush all four of them were part of it.”
Later in the day, Hunt sent a text to Peacock that said in part, “I’m hearing at the working agenda we can request the vote be placed at the info workshop, board meeting or special meeting.”
While Hunt was not successful in having the board suspend the rules and add the contract vote to the Feb. 22 board meeting agenda, she was successful on March 28 in adding an item to request her own removal as Wadsworth’s board liaison.
“It’s a tremendous school. Unfortunately, because of certain narratives in the media, I believe it is in Wadsworth’s best interests to no longer serve as the liaison of that school,” she said. The board accepted her request.
In her March 31 email to the Observer, Hunt wrote that she’d left the Feb. 7 School Board workshop with the understanding that the topic of Mittelstadt’s contract would be placed on a March meeting agenda.
“It was also my understanding the superintendent's assistant would be reaching out to schedule one-on-one meetings between Superintendent Mittelstadt and each board member for the purpose of discussing Cathy's evaluation,” she wrote. “Not only did I not hear anything about the one-on-one, I was disappointed when I learned the contract was not on the March agenda, as discussed.”
At the board's March 7 workshop, Mittelstadt reminded board members that she promised to provide her self-evaluation to them by March 17, with one-on-one meetings to be scheduled thereafter.
School Board member Will Furry, at the time, agreed that a discussion on April 4 and a vote on April 18 would give the board members enough time to go over the documentation and meet with the superintendent.
“We have to do our due diligence,” Furry said.
But at a board meeting on March 28 Furry got a board consensus, with the support of Hunt and Chong, to hold a vote on Mittelstadt’s contract on April 4, rather than the previously decided date of April 18.
Furry said he wanted to hold the vote earlier “In light of a lot of things going on in the media surrounding Superintendent Mittelstadt’s contract.”
Peacock said he believes Mittelstadt should not continue to be superintendent.
Although he believes he was wrongfully demoted from district chief of operations and terminated from his role as a district negotiator, he said his opinion comes from his experience as a principal at two Flagler County schools and his service in the district office.
“If they asked me a question regarding (Mittelstadt’s) performance, I'd say, our ESE services, they're horrible. We're having all kinds of frustration. We're getting teachers beat up, we're getting kids that are being hurt. If Ms. Mittelstadt is going to be the superintendent, then let's turn the page and let's move on. … I don't believe that she's the right person to continue to lead Flagler County.”
Mittelstadt declined to comment on the charges.
If Mittelstadt is retained, Peacock said, he would like to continue as the principal at Wadsworth.
“I will pick up the phone (and say), ‘Cathy, congratulations. Let's talk about where we are. Let's bury the hatchet.’ I would want to have a conversation with her to be able to move forward and get all this drama and this other stuff behind us. So, if that's how it ends up, that's how it ends up.”
Managing editor Jonathan Simmons contributed to this story.