Flagler Schools’ superintendent search: Board discusses what it wants from new leadership

Brenno Carillo | The Daytona Beach News-Journal | July 19, 2023

The Flagler County School Board gathered Tuesday afternoon for a special meeting with members of the Florida School Board Association to discuss what it’s looking for in a new superintendent.

The board in April chose not to renew former Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s contract in a contentious 3-2 vote.

Since then, the board has partnered with the FSBA to begin its search for the vacant position. LaShakia Moore, who was Mittelstadt’s assistant superintendent, was appointed interim superintendent until January 2024, when the board expects the new superintendent to start.

FSBA’s CEO Andrea Messina led the discussion asking board members questions about the district’s strategic plan; challenges the new superintendent might face; how they want to see the new leader develop relationships with community partners, as well as with the school board and district staff; and other topics.

In discussing the strategic plan, board members agreed that the new superintendent might want to sit down with the school board to review its goals.

“I think with a new superintendent coming on board, and with a majority of new board members, we are ripe for that opportunity to tweak, to look at it, to gather additional input,” said board member Colleen Conklin.

Board members Will Furry, Christy Chong and Sally Hunt were elected in 2022. The three opposed renewing Mittelstadt’s contract.

Hunt said she would like to have monthly reports on specific metrics related to the strategic plan’s progress throughout the year – something she does not recall getting from Mittelstadt.

Maintaining focus on ‘student achievement’

When asked about the district’s emerging issues, board members listed several items, including growth, talent retention, improving the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program, school safety and improving the district’s ‘B’ grade.

“One of the things I think we need going forward is a very strong community partner who is meeting with our mayors, community leaders, and together looking at the ecosystem that is Flagler County,” Hunt said.

She said she did not agree with a community member who told her the district is “incapable” of exceeding the state average.

Furry said echoed that statement and said the district is “capable of so much more.”

“What I’m looking for is a leader that seizes an opportunity,” Furry said, also calling for “resiliency” and “optimism.” “We’re a small school district, and I believe there is no reason why a great leader can’t lead us to an ‘A’ district.”

Conklin said student achievement in the district has been “stagnant for many years.”

“With Cathy, we started making some of those gains, so the trend is moving in the right direction,” she said. “We really need somebody that can come in as an academic and instructional leader to continue moving those trends in the right direction.

“We probably this year will be just shy of an ‘A,’ so it is the perfect opportunity for someone to come in and push us over the line.”

What challenges will the next superintendent face?

Messina asked board members about the challenges the new superintendent must be aware of.

Hunt called attention to the fact that the Flagler community is like a “family” and that many residents are “long-term.” Because of that, she said, the new superintendent, whether or not they are from Flagler County, needs to be “strong enough to do what needs to be done, even if it ruffles some feathers.”

“We are looking for someone to be visionary,” Hunt said. “We are looking for someone to not be a manager, but a leader.”

Massaro echoed the sentiment, saying that Flagler is “not an easy community.”

“Our community is very divisive,” Massaro said. “We’re split pretty heavily politically. Unfortunately, that has come into board rooms.

“(The new superintendent) needs to be someone thick-skinned, who is willing to negotiate and monitor both sides, because both sides have a lot to offer.”

Conklin said the main challenge would be for the new leader to keep their focus on the main objective, which is “student achievement.”

“I think we need somebody that can come in and help us find common ground,” she said.

Furry said he hopes that the new superintendent steer away from “the status quo” and “look at things from a fresh perspective.”

“We need a leader that can learn quickly,” Furry said, highlighting the district’s funding in the wake of the voucher’s program. “A leader that can come up with creative models that will attract families to stay in public education rather than maybe using vouchers.”

Relationship with community and timeline

Board members also weighed in on how they would want the new superintendent to develop relationships with other government agencies and community leaders, such as the Flagler County Council and municipalities like Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell.

While a general consensus among the five members was that these relationships are better than they were a few years ago, the new superintendent must know how to navigate a possible impasse or conflict.

Hunt said she did not like what she described as a “we-versus-them” approach from Mittelstadt, and “instead of a superintendent that goes to battle, I would hope we have a superintendent that goes to collaborate as a fellow key leader of the community.”

Conklin said that while she does want to see someone who will be a “collaborator,” she also wants someone to fight for the district’s interests if a conflict happens.

“I want that person who is going to advocate and battle on behalf of the school district,” Conklin said.

Board members also touched on other topics, such as the district’s relationship with the community’s Washington, D.C., representatives, with local faith-based entities and other community leaders.

The plan is for the FSBA to narrow down the search over the coming months and for the new superintendent to be hired in November.

The board will meet with FSBA representatives again at its Aug. 15 meeting.

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