Tempers Again Flare at School Board Over Disagreement and Misunderstanding of Members’ Roles

FlaglerLive | April 18, 2024

Signaling continuing tensions underlying the dynamics of a sharply divided Flagler County School Board, tempers again flared among its members Tuesday evening over the right of members to speak their mind–or not–as Cheryl Massaro inaccurately accused Will Furry, the chair, of violating rules by addressing a recent vote in an Observer letter to the editor and Christy Chong accused her of being a bully.

The argument was over the board’s 3-2 vote last month to close the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club as a membership organization, restricting it to student and private uses. But the flare-up was a reflection of continuing divide among board members that has occasionally turned personal. Massaro, who was the previous chair, has generally been disenchanted with the way Furry has conducted meetings. After a member of the public addressed last month’s vote, she took the opportunity to criticize Furry.

“It is customary for school board members to support whatever the decision is, whether you were for it or against it, we would support it. And I was willing to do that wholeheartedly until I saw a letter to the editor in the Palm Coast Observer from our chair, which disturbed me. In my 40-plus years of education and working with a number of educational boards–” Furry interrupted her here, asking if she was making comments or had a request.

“My request is coming but you’re going to hear it first,” Massaro snapped. “I was very disappointed that a 3-2 vote, which has two sides every story, much of the information that was provided is accurate, but it also did not include the fact that there will be an $80,000 loss regardless,” every year, whether the club has members or not.

Massaro said that she would “hope that Robert’s Rules of Orders will start to be dug in to our chair and be followed appropriately, because there are 11 duties that you have. That’s it. You actually serve at the pleasure of the four of us. And I would hope that you would look at Robert’s Rules, find out what those duties are.” She urged Furry to attend the Florida School Board Association’s chairmanship training.

But Massaro’s criticism was off the mark on several grounds. Robert’s Rules, a manual whose first edition–by an Army officer–dates back almost 150 years, is a guide of parliamentary procedure, not a mandate. It has been reedited under innumerable guises, especially since its copyright expired. It does not address such matters as whether board members may or may not discuss board actions on their own, beyond the board room, before or after votes.

The Florida School Board Association’s advice to board members, including to Flagler’s board when it was differently made up, has been stricter, seeking to constrain board members’ opinions only to whatever board consensus or majority votes have approved. But that’s an outlier approach that other local governments and many school boards don’t follow. The Flagler board’s own procedures vaguely seek to constrain individual board members’ freedom to speak their mind. But that applies only to the extent that they cannot claim to speak for the board when they have not been delegated to do so.

They do not, however, lose the right to speak their mind, as all of them do (in social media postings, in public appearances, in the press, on the campaign trail), on board or other issues, even after a vote: their role as elected officials doesn’t trump the First Amendment. For instance, nothing in policy, let alone in Robert’s Rules, would stop Furry or any other member of the board to discuss past votes on the campaign trail and provide his own opinion, whichever the vote went.

In this case, the vote to close the club went Furry’s way. He summarized the issue in a brief letter to the editor–which the paper had solicited, since Furry was being criticized in another letter, as Furry himself noted–and repeated the same points he’d made several times on the board.

Then he prefaced a final paragraph this way: “Speaking for myself as your District 2 School Board Member, it is my view that Flagler Schools should not be in the health club business.” He went on to explain why. But his preface had clearly stated that he was not speaking for the board, at least at that point, though he signed the letter as the chair of the board. He could not have circulated the letter ahead of time among board members to solicit their input or acceptance as that would have violated the Sunshine law. But it would have been unnecessary, as he was merely explaining his vote. Massaro would have been equally free to explain hers.

Nevertheless Massaro called Furry’s letter “out of order” and “wrong,” clearly infuriating Furry.

“That was a response to a letter that was specifically targeted at me,” he said, “and that was my response in that letter to the editor. Okay, so you’re not characterizing that letter correctly. And there was nothing wrong with that letter.”

Moments later Chong and Massaro went at it again when Chong, with characteristic exaggeration and condescension, accused Massaro–without at first mentioning her name–of being “the source of constant drama and comments out in the media almost daily” (Massaro’s last media comments last week referred to her decision not to run for re-election) and of being a “bully.” Addressing her directly, and in what Roberts Rules would consider a violation of decorum (“a member must confine himself [or herself] to the question before the assembly, and avoid personalities,” an old version states) Chong told Massaro: “you are what I hope our children do not end up like, okay?”

“You work so well with the kids, thank you,” Massaro retorted.

The “fireworks,” as Furry later called the segment in a rather short board meeting, had been unwittingly ignited by Robin Foot during the public comment portion of he meeting. He identified himself as an “unofficial representative” of the 1,100 members of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, said he and his wife have been paying taxes locally for 20 years, but did not discover the facility until this year, after the facilities he and his wife had been accessing in the Hammock were no longer accessible. He submitted a petition of close to 100 signatures who “very strongly object to the decision of the Flagler school board to terminate member access to the pool, which is a primary exercise for our collective membership,” a significant number of whom are senior, some of whom have disabilities. He asked for the decision to be reconsidered. That is unlikely.

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