Inspirational, trustworthy and innovative. On top of current educational issues. Financially savvy. Good listener. Familiar with Flagler schools. Those are the top qualities unidentified respondents want in the next Flagler County school superintendent, according to a school district online survey.
Surprisingly, two long-standing district priorities–diversity and technology–rate surprisingly lower in the public’s responses than they do for the Flagler school board and for the contemporary educational establishment in general.
There’s a significant caveat: Just 84 people, a third of them district employees, responded to the month-long survey by the Flagler County School Board. The board is in the midst of a search to replace Jim Tager, who retires in June. The board is advertising the position for six weeks starting later this month.
There’s been very little public interest or involvement in the search. Two in-person meetings of school staffers and community members also intended to solicit opinions about the next superintendent drew only a handful of people each. And none of the monthly meetings the school board has been holding regarding the search have drawn more than isolated public input. The district on Oct. 21 issued one release to the press listing the various meetings and the link to the online survey–hosted on the district’s website–but none since. The more than half dozen stories about the search published so far on FlaglerLive have drawn limited readership and rare comments.
The Florida School Board Association consultants the board hired to shepherd the district through the search process said they’ve typically seen little public involvement in the hiring of a superintendent in districts where there is no overriding controversy. Relatively brief as it’s been, Tager’s tenure has been stable, with distinct successes, such as the district’s return to an A rating after seven years, a significantly improved graduation rate, and a steady stream of publicity about the district’s flagship, or classroom-to-career, programs in its nine schools. There’s been controversies, but they’ve been segregated to particular schools or individuals, while the board itself remains the county’s most collegial. Its recent controversy over prayers at board meetings was the exception rather than the rule.
The online survey asked eight questions, though two of them are about the respondent’s background (zip code, whether the respondent is a parent, a school staffer, a student, and so on) and two are open-ended questions that don’t address the qualities of the next superintendent as they do the respondent’s opinions about the district’s strengths and “challenges.” The questions were themed similarly to those posed at in-person focus groups, the answers tabulated and presented in a 15-page brief that has yet to be submitted to the school board. (See the complete results below.)
And the questions were all positively geared. For example, questions ask about top leadership qualities respondents want to see, top instructional leaderships, top “business and finance characteristics,” and each of the seven possible answers were to leading questions or leading statements, again with an exclusively positive bend, making it more of a choice between ideals than a critical evaluation: who would not want a leader who “leads with honesty and charisma,” a leader who “meets with individuals and diverse groups comfortably,” one who’s fiscally responsible, analytical, committed “to all children”? None of the questions ask what respondents don’t want to see in a superintendent, or whether respondents would prefer an internal or external candidate, a candidate with mostly public as opposed to private sector experience.
So both questions and answers tend to be more generic than insightful, which may explain, at least to some extent, why the responses have been limited: the exercise is largely pre-determined by the vanilla-flavored approach: Under the top leadership qualities, “inspires and builds trust and models high standards of integrity and ethics” got the largest number of votes, while “highly organized strategic thinker” got the lowest number. Yet the statement that got the second-highest number of votes was for a leader who “thinks with innovation, creativity, and courage to engage others in seeking solutions to district challenges.” In other words, a strategically-minded leader who presumably understands district challenges while skillfully using its resources to solve them. Some of the answers were quite telling, however: Bringing “people of different cultures together to achieve goals” drew less than half support.
Respondents were asked to select the top three instructional qualities they want in their new superintendent. There was a clear divide in the answers: the top three, with roughly the same support, sought better scores, closing achievement gaps, keeping up with education’s changing landscape and the willingness to visit classrooms and participate in children’s activities. Again, “experience leading an organization with diverse cultures” got less than half the votes, as did data analysis and the use of a strategic plan.
The question about business and finance characteristics had one clear priority–a leader who maximizes the resources of the district–while four of the five other statements generated the same amount of support, whether it’s for fiscal responsibility, oversight, innovation or vision. There was an arresting exception in this category also: the statement that got the least support was “uses technology to ensure its use and impact on district systems, teaching and learning,” though technology has been one of the district’s leading priorities.
The question about relationship traits generated more diverse responses. All seven possible responses are the sort of qualities any leader would like to have, or should have. But the statement that got the most responses by far (82) was about being a good listener and gatherer of information “to make thoughtful, timely decisions.” Familiarity with Flagler schools is also a priority, as are honesty and charisma. The quality that got the least interest–and again, the school board will be struck by that–is “experience in leading and supporting tax initiatives.” The board is heading into a period of years when it will consider at least one, possibly two tax levies, and will depend on its superintendent to make them successful (particularly since it is losing its most effective advocate along those lines: Andy Dance, who ably led the campaign for a technology sales tax referendum, and who is running for the county commission.)
The only part of the survey where respondents could more freely express their concerns is in the last question, when they were asked to list “two or three challenges” in the district. The responses offered a wide range of insights, many of them lengthy and thoughtful, and more revealing than most of the questions or answers in the seven previous questions.
Among the more specific responses: “The disproportional treatment of minority students, especially when it comes to challenging them to the next level.” ” Establishing a climate and culture that would improve relations among students, faculty, administration, and parents; which would improve society tensions outside of the school environment.” “Cost of security.” “Disciplinary plagued students shuffled from one school to another.” “Transparency.Things are covered up much too frequently.”
There was also this: “*There seem to be some issues with providing the proper and necessary help some students need to stay on the right path and not fall into situations which cause them to fail as scholars and thus lose prospective on what they want for their futures. Flagler needs to find a way to identify the students who are most at risk of veering off in the wrong direction (and TRY to find them early) and finding ways to guide them back onto the right path so they may continue to succeed in school and beyond the walls of their schools.”
Bullying was mentioned, but rarely, though there was this: “From a student perspective we need to have better communication with the schools and the kids in it. As one example dress code should be a discussion not shoved off under the rug. Another challenge would be discipline inside the schools. In FPCHS we have a dean denying a victim and basically telling the sexual harassment victim to just ignore it. She still currently works there, the big question is why does she still work there and how has it been handled.”
The word “nepotism”: recurs in three responses, student poverty and homelessness are a concern, as are exceptional student education practices.
After the board digests all those survey and focus group answers, it will draft its advertisement seeking the new superintendent, and six weeks later will convene a citizens’ advisory board to cull through the applications. That advisory board will forward perhaps a dozen applicants to the board, which, in turn, will short-list the applicants on Feb. 25 to those it will interview the first week of March. The board is expected to vote on its choice for superintendent on March 10.