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School Board talks seriously about replacing Rendell

Photo: Superintendent Mark Rendell.

The School Board’s March 26 meeting was contentious and perhaps momentous, and there have been hundreds of responses – on social media sites, in radio interviews, and in press reports – to what happened that evening as the board talked seriously about replacing Superintendent Mark Rendell.

The superintendent and some School Board members are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute that erupted after the board began discussing Rendell’s upcoming job evaluation during a March 12 work session. At that time, several board members indicated they might not support renewing the superintendent’s contract.

Rendell responded by having Tallahassee-based attorney H.B. Stivers send a letter dated March 20, notifying the School Board that he has been “retained to advise and assist Dr. Rendell concerning the terms and conditions of his employment with the district.”

Rendell further raised the ire of board members by informing them by email on March 25 that he was seeking employment outside the district and reminding them that by the terms of his contract, he is only obligated to give them a 30-day notice of his departure.

At a meeting the next day, School Board Chairwoman Laura Zorc called for Rendell’s resignation in light of his decision to seek other employment.

She argued that it would be better to gain Rendell’s resignation or fire him and begin an aggressive search for a new superintendent  than to leave the situation up in the air, with the possibility that Rendell might leave abruptly at any time with 30 days’ notice.

Board member Tiffany Justice, who has been Rendell’s most loyal supporter on the board, rushed to his defense.

She started out by blaming Vero Beach 32963’s reporting about the March 12 meeting for the superintendent’s decision to hire an attorney.

But Rendell himself refuted Justice’s allegation.

“I contacted my attorney before I spoke with the paper,” Rendell said. “When you see your contract repeatedly up for discussion – I thought it was wise to get an attorney.”

Rendell did not respond to Zorc’s call for his resignation or say much else during the board meeting.

Justice, who was visibly angry during the meeting, frequently lashed out at other board members and continuously interrupted them while they were speaking.

While other board members were discussing when to schedule a meeting to discuss the new superintendent search, Justice blurted out a motion to renew and extend Rendell’s contract through 2021.

Her motion was ignored by other board members and died from lack of support.

Justice’s continued outbursts prompted Chairwoman Zorc to pound her gavel at one point and call for a three-minute recess “to give Board Member Justice an opportunity to return and behave in a professional manner when our meeting resumes.”

After the board meeting, Justice crossed the board room to tell Vero Beach 32963 that “I have even less respect for my fellow board members at this point.”

The rift between Rendell and Justice on one side and board members who want to replace him on the other has spread throughout the community.

Justice has appeared on a local radio talk show arguing in favor of retaining Rendell and acknowledged soliciting public support for Rendell in the form of letters and emails

During the March 26 board meeting, Justice claimed that the district has been “inundated” with “hundreds” of letters of support for Rendell in recent weeks.

But Nancy Esplen, executive assistant to the School Board, confirmed Friday that the district had received only six letters of support for Rendell. That number did not include a letter of support emailed to board members by Rendell’s wife, Heidi.

Jon Teske, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations and technology, and his wife Becky Teske, an elementary science specialist in the district’s Curriculum & Instruction Department, posted a photo of support for Rendell on their Facebook page last week.

The photo – which was posted during school work hours – features a group of 10 school employees posing with Rendell, who is holding a “We Are Family,” sign.

The post, which features several hash tags, including #SDIRCSuperProud and #weRfamily, urges people to treat each other with respect, and then attacks Rendell’s critics and the media.

Rendell’s detractors are mobilizing too.

An online petition calling for Rendell’s firing was launched March 28 and had collected more than 200 signatures along with 98 anti-Rendell comments by March 30, some highly critical of Justice as well as the superintendent.

Rendell’s tenure in the district, which he joined in 2015, has been plagued by controversy and scandals, several of which have cost the district millions of dollars in legal fees and fines.