Regular readers of this column know that School Board member Tiffany Justice and I have had our differences the past couple of years, but I think we might finally have found some common ground.
As of Monday, Justice was the only incumbent who hadn’t yet filed for re-election.
And she shouldn’t.
She’d be happier, three of the four other board members would be relieved, and the school district would be in far better hands with candidate Brian Barefoot – who enjoyed a wildly successful career in investment banking before serving a seven-year stint as president of Massachusetts’ Babson College – sitting in her District 5 chair on the dais.
Simply put: Barefoot, a former Indian River Shores mayor, would bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, credibility and gravitas to what has been a sometimes-contentious, occasionally chaotic five-member School Board.
He also possesses a professionalism Justice sorely lacks.
That’s not a personal attack, though I’ve no doubt she will see it as such, but Barefoot’s stature, built on a lifetime of accomplishment, makes him the perfect choice to lead the School Board as its new, blue-chip superintendent pushes the district to reach its potential.
Besides, Justice has played her way out of the lineup, proving repeatedly over the past four years that she is ill-equipped for, and overmatched by, a job that requires more than caring about kids.
Those of our neighbors elected to the School Board take on an awesome responsibility and, at times, a daunting task. Difficult decisions need to be made, and not all of them will be popular. Politics and personal differences must be cast aside. There’s no place for grudges.
And as is the case with occupying any public office: The thin-skinned should not apply.
Justice, however, lacked the maturity to handle scrutiny and the mettle to absorb criticism, whether from the public, other board members or the local press.
Throughout her four-year term, she foolishly and sometimes publicly attacked this newspaper for its tough-but-fair coverage of the board – particularly her interaction with the other members and her fierce and relentless defense of former superintendent Mark Rendell, who struggled noticeably during a tumultuous tenure marked by scandal, controversy and other problems resulting from his many wrongheaded decisions.
Not only did Justice question the accuracy and integrity of Vero Beach 32963’s reporting and commentary during board meetings, but a review of her district phone records revealed a troubling text-message exchange between her and Rendell in March 2019.
“I am starting the takedown of 32963,” Justice wrote, prompting Rendell to reply, “It would be good for the community to destroy that paper.”
Rendell’s low-brow response was to be expected, but you’d think a School Board member overseeing what was, at the time, a troubled district would have other priorities – and maybe she did.
Those same phone records show that Rendell spoke to and texted with Justice noticeably more than he did with other board members. Most of their text exchanges concerned district business, but many others resembled friendly and occasionally personal conversations.
By then, however, Justice’s very public and unwavering support of Rendell had spawned rumors of an inappropriate relationship – which made headlines last year, when Justice tried unsuccessfully to have a longtime district employee criminally prosecuted and fired for alluding to such gossip in social media posts.
Though Justice initiated the public vendetta, which produced a stream of news reports and columns that generated more publicity than the damaging Twitter posts deserved, she naively blamed this newspaper for keeping the story alive.
More disturbing, however, was Justice’s shameless manipulation of the board and its secretary to call what was an unlawful meeting in April 2019, after the panel voted to not extend Rendell’s contract beyond 2021.
When Rendell offered to resign, Justice promptly skirted board rules and arranged a special-call meeting at which she attempted to convince the board to use taxpayer dollars to grant Rendell the severance package he sought – a payoff he didn’t deserve.
Led by Chairman Laura Zorc, the board rejected her efforts and Rendell resigned anyway, without the cash he had hoped to walk away with. Shortly afterward, we learned he had already accepted a new job as principal of Cocoa Beach Junior/Senior High School.
Rendell’s departure paved the way for the board’s hiring of its new superintendent, David Moore, who started in December and has brilliantly navigated the district through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But even on Moore’s watch, Justice has remained an antagonizing and disruptive force on the board, verbally sniping with other members, including Zorc, who said Justice’s inappropriate outbursts have become more frequent since March, when Barefoot filed to run for her seat.
“The jabs and daggers have intensified,” Zorc said.
During the School Board’s April 14 workshop with Moore, in fact, Justice stunned the room when she alleged that the panel’s decision to consider replacing its longtime attorney, Suzanne D’Agresta, was politically motivated.
Justice, a staunch supporter of D’Agresta, who was a close ally of Rendell’s, accused board members of trading their votes to oust the attorney in exchange for political favors, including campaign support.
“I have a concern that there are certain people in our community who have an interest in removing Suzanne from her position as School Board attorney,” Justice said. “And they have specifically gone to board members individually and leveraged their power, whether that be through support for elections, or donations to other people or other candidates.
“I have been approached personally by several community members – some people running for office, in fact – who really want Suzanne gone, and it really worries me.”
Justice offered no evidence of wrongdoing, of course, and her defense of D’Agresta’s job performance amounted to praising her for doing what lawyers get paid to do.
Still, the three board members with whom Justice had confrontations in the past – Zorc, Vice Chairman Mara Schiff and Jackie Rosario – felt compelled to deny the allegation. Zorc called it “unfortunate,” and Rosario described it as “ridiculous.”
Mostly, it was yet another example of Justice putting her own agenda – and her need to settle personal scores – above the collective efforts of the board and best interests of the district.
That’s not good for anyone, including Justice, who I’m sure ran for office with the best of intentions and tried hard to do a good job. I believe she cares about our schools and our kids. I appreciate her service to the community.
But things didn’t work out the way any of us had hoped and, at this point, it really doesn’t matter why – especially with someone as qualified as Barefoot poised to take her place.
So, despite our past differences, I hope Justice and I finally can agree: There’s no reason for her to run again.