School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker listens during a board workshop May 2. Board members Andy Dance and Janet McDonald are at left. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)

School Board prepares to select superintendent to succeed Jacob Oliva

The board will vote at a special meeting the evening of May 2 to select one of three remaining candidates.
By: 
May. 2, 2017

There are three remaining candidates for Flagler Schools superintendent, and the School Board will select one of them at a meeting the evening of May 2.

At a workshop earlier the same day, James Tager — a principal at Atlantic High School in Port Orange and a former deputy superintendent for the Volusia County School District — garnered consistently positive comments from board members. 

Gerald Wilson, a superintendent of the Worcester County Public Schools in Maryland, also got good reviews. Board members did also note that he'd have more to learn about Florida-specific procedures and regulations than the other two candidates, who are both Floridians. 

Board members also had positive comments about the third candidate, Jeff Umbaugh, an assistant superintendent for instruction in Clay County. But they seemed concerned that Umbaugh's sense of humor might be off-putting for some members of the public. 

All of the School Board members have met with each of the three candidates for a group interview, and each later met with the candidates for individual interviews.

None of the candidates attended the workshop. At the workshop May 2, board members spoke first about Tager.

In meeting with Tager, School Board member Colleen Conklin said, she wanted to know if he personally believed in the possibility of getting the district to a 100% graduation rate. He did, she said, and told her that he felt very strongly about the matter. 

"I felt like he had a very good handle on industry certifications, the value that they bring not only to the educational realm of what we do in schools but also understood the budget and financial impact as well," she said. 

The two had also discussed zero tolerance school discipline policies, and Tager had agreed with Conklin that, "Yes, the world is not always black and white, that there's gray in the middle so that each case really does require a sense of looking at all of the elements." Conklin was also impressed with Tager's understanding of the importance of building relationships with the community.

Board member Maria Barbosa said that Tager's demeanor had made a positive impression on her. He seemed calm during his interview and maintained good eye contact, she said. He also had the benefit of knowing the area and having contacts in Volusia County and familiarity with state education issues.

Andy Dance said that Tager had something of an advantage over the other candidates because he's close enough to Flagler to be exposed to local press stories about Flagler Schools matters such as the district's Flagship programs. 

And, Dance said, "I believe him when he said this is the job that he wants. … I think his strength will be through his familiarity, and with knowing the programs that have moved us forward."

Dance said he'd spoken at length with Tager about leadership, and that Tager had said he saw the need for a clear second-in-command, a position the district doesn't currently have. 

School Board member Janet McDonald visited Tager at Atlantic High School.

"I think the comment that Mrs. Conklin said about relationships was evident," McDonald said. "Everyone there knew him; he knew them by name. He responded to teachers, students, preschoolers just beautifully.

School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said he felt that Tager's strength would likely be working with people, and that his weakness would be finance. 

"He answered the questions directly, which I really like," Tucker said. 

Jeff Umbaugh also had the advantage of a Florida background. 

Umbaugh came off as a "data wonk," Dance said. "I appreciate the fact that he loves to pick apart and digest ... that data. ... He knows how to address the Florida situation, standards, and what to pick out improve grades."

But, Dance said, "Mr. Umbaugh has, I think, a personality that doesn’t mix with everybody," tending to crack jokes that some might misinterpret. Dance enjoyed him — the two "got into a competition to out-pun each other," Dance said — but thought not everyone would be comfortable with Umbaugh's sense of humor. Dance was also concerned that some of Umbaugh's social media postings might be subject to misinterpretation.

Barbosa called Umbaugh "full of life" and said that "he can make you laugh," but also noted that he'd had a tendency to look over her shoulder during their interview rather than make direct eye contact, and that he hadn't seemed willing to be available 24/7 to respond to board member concerns.

Of the three candidates, Wilson had the most extensive administrative experience, having been superintendent of four different school districts, starting in 2000.

References had described Wilson as a thoughtful planner, Dance said, and in his interview, Wilson was "able to recall specific things from every other district that he worked with."

"I think he’s a smart enough person that he could adapt to Florida," Dance said. "He kept saying, 'Look, I’ve been here, and I’ve adapted; I’ve been there and I adapted.'" 

One program from one of Wilson's previous districts that stood out to Dance involved not only giving students computers, as Flagler does, but letting the kids keep them after they graduate. 

Barbosa called Wilson calm, easy to talk to and a good listener. She said he'd told her he like to maintain close contact with local legislators, a potential advantage for the district.

Tucker felt Wilson probably had the strongest background of the three candidates when it came to curriculum issues.

"His only weakness, I would say, is that he doesn't have the Florida knowledge," Tucker said.

Conklin agreed with Tucker, and called Wilson "a forward-thinker" who'd been eager to celebrate innovation in the district.

"He’s definitely a very strong instructional leader," she said. "He’s very well-read, he understands educational research, and it appears he has the experience and the background to take that educational research and put it into practice. … I think he values and understands the need to build trust in any organization he comes into."

The board will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. May 2 at the Government Services Building to vote to select one of the candidates as district superintendent.