The Volusia County School Board voted 3-2 May 28 to terminate Superintendent Tom Russell’s contract a year-and-two-months early, making him the second Volusia County superintendent in a row whose term came to a sudden end.
The decision came after a surprise motion at the last meeting, May 14, by freshman member Ruben Colón, to discuss ending Russell’s contract. The move was spurred by the revelation that the school district is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which several School Board members said they hadn’t been informed about.
That made the usually sedate School Board meeting a big-ticket event Tuesday, a day in which seven other governmental meetings in West Volusia were going on near-simultaneously.
It was standing room only for the School Board, which also presented end-of-the-year recognitions for students for outstanding achievements in the visual arts. While groups of students gathered outside, parents packed into the meeting room alongside members of the news media.
Following photo-ops for the honored children, the main show began.
After a how-to lesson on properly deposing a sitting superintendent by the board’s attorney, Ted Doran, Colón moved to terminate Russell’s contract on June 30.
Early termination would lead to a payout of roughly $85,000 to Russell, for 20 weeks of salary, Doran said.
There was no immediate second to Colón’s motion, which led to a somewhat awkward silence. Board Chairman Carl Persis lamented not having the Jeopardy “thinking” music downloaded.
Realizing there could be no discussion without a second for the motion, freshman Member Jamie Haynes, who represents the DeLand-Orange City-DeBary-Pierson District 1, seconded.
“I just want to say that my position has not changed from the last meeting,” Colón said. “There is nothing else for me to add.”
Linda Cuthbert, who represents Southeast Volusia, who cast the sole dissenting vote at the May 14 meeting, began an impassioned speech.
“My feelings also have not changed,” Cuthbert said. “As a result [of the May 14 vote], confusion and instability throughout our district was created. … To restore our communities’ faith in our ability to effectively lead, I am in favor of allowing him to work until the end of his contract agreement.”
With a cracking and hoarse voice, Cuthbert made multiple points in her 12-minute speech, including questioning the propriety of the actions of some board members in confronting Russell, and the vast amounts of information Russell is required to oversee.
“It is physically impossible for any district administrator to constantly inform each board member of every issue or concern of this district on a daily basis,” Cuthbert said.
Additionally, the timing of the early termination comes at a busy time for the board, Cuthbert said. The June 30 date coincides with the end of the fiscal year.
“The superintendent is responsible for the school district to conclude one year, while simultaneously beginning anew,” Cuthbert said. “This was all tumultuously tossed to the wind two weeks ago. Severance pay has been determined to be $85,000. With an approximate $10 million debt to begin our  school year, this is an irresponsible and unnecessary use of public dollars.”
During Russell’s four-year term, the school district has seen increases in the student graduation rate, Cuthbert said, as well as improvement from a “C” district to a “B” district.
“It will probably take a minimum of six months to search for a new superintendent. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of salary and contract requests he or she will demand when knowing that twice in the last four-and-a-half years, a Volusia County School Board member has publicly ridiculed, embarrassed, and surprisingly demanded the firing of a sitting superintendent,” Cuthbert said.
She added, “So I plead with my colleagues to reconsider your motion tonight. In the long run, this will cost our beleaguered district much more than money.”
The packed audience gave her speech a boisterous round of applause.
But when Persis spoke, it became clear that Russell’s chances for finishing out his contract were low.
“As Mr. Russell knows, I like him,” Persis said. “However, I am in favor of the motion.”
Because of the quality of the senior staff, Persis said, the transition should be smooth, and the timing of the motion, at the end of the fiscal year, was, in fact, the best time for the change.
“It’s a good time; in fact, it’s probably a perfect time for a new person to come in, spend time with Mr. Russell, learn about where we are, and why we are, and keep it going with the senior staff that Mr. Russell has,” Persis said. “I have full confidence that this district will be fine.”
Persis spoke of the nuts and bolts of searching for an interim superintendent, and was confident a new superintendent would be selected by January 2020.
“Not that you’re walking out the door, so don’t walk out the door, because we need you here,” Persis ended, to laughter and scoffs from the audience.
Board Member Ida Wright, who, along with Cuthbert, was a member of the School Board during the last superintendent shake-up, expressed unhappiness that history was repeating itself, and dismay at how the move would be received by the public.
“We know things that are intimate, that just maybe board members know, that everybody don’t, but I will agree with Linda — it’s all about how the public will perceive,” Wright said. “That makes me very uncomfortable, because it appears that we are dysfunctional at times.”
Wright was cut off by a burst of applause from the audience, who seemed to agree.
“Guys, it was tough the first time; it will be tough this time, but …,” Wright ended, before sighing deeply.
Wright and Cuthbert both voted against early termination, but were outnumbered.
Russell, who had been almost entirely silent until then, addressed the School Board and the audience.
“I respect your decision. I just want to go over the last four-and-a-half years,” Russell said.
In a 10-minute speech, he went over a long list of his accomplishments.
“It was said last meeting I was an ineffective leader. This is what I’ve done,” Russell said.
He received a standing ovation.