Dear Polk community: Kelli Stargel and your deadbeat Legislature are exterminating community education

Florida law, grounded in the Florida Constitution, requires all people of our communities to send their children to school. It’s a pretty direct and simple requirement. It’s one half of the deal that has underpinned human development in Florida and America for generations.

The other half of the deal is that our communities must take these kids into our schools and care for them. Their parents, capability, motivation, or behavior do not matter. In Florida, your state government created constitutional instruments — like the Polk School District — to provide this compulsory education. It applies to normal education, gifted, 504s, ELLs, and IEPs alike. The state government provides most of the money to meet that obligation, while requiring local communities to contribute as well. The federal government kicks in a smaller amount. Here’s the breakdown in Polk.

Today, your state government, your flesh and blood legislators, are abandoning their part of that deal. They want to destroy the arrangement. And they want to replace it with nothing.

It’s true they want to use compulsory education laws as captive money for educational hucksters, as I’ll show you in a second. But they have no systemic ideas or moral commitment to anything but destruction and fraud.

The last undead groan of a zombie model

You saw it last summer when your state government used Kelli Stargel’s fraudulent VAM equation (shown above) to force the displacement of dozens of teachers in the neediest Polk schools. And then replaced them with nothing but a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. That’s a metaphor for all of Florida education policy of the last 20 years. It despises the idea of community. It despises most kids. It despises teachers. And it will never, ever, ever hold itself accountable for the on-the-ground human impacts of its policies.

This year, your legislators plan to provide even fewer resources per student to execute more absurd and anti-human unfunded mandates. They are refusing local pleas to fund our own educational systems because Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran have Republican primaries to run in the future.

They will again prevent local School Boards from re-establishing a local option property tax taken away during the financial crisis of 2008. And they are imposing the rollback rate for local counties on property taxes used for schools. That should be an entirely local decision. With those two funding sources, we could give our Polk teachers significant raises. Without them, we have less money operate schools as a community than we did in 2008.

There are some people who think having fewer resources than in 2008 for more kids is a good thing. Anyone who thinks that is a good thing should publicly own that position and run against me in 2020. I welcome that campaign.

This year is the climax of long-building horror show — the final corrupt inflection point of 20 years of JeBetsyCoreTrumpbamaism. I think we’re going to beat it back over the next five years. But those next few years will suck. They will require a pitched community battle against the very people who represent us.

And here’s the sad/funny thing: with the exception of true believer Kelli Stargel, I think our legislators generally agree with what I’m saying. They’re just too powerless or afraid of the Richard Corcorans and Joe Negrons of the world to take any personal risks. Which leads me to ask: what the hell are you there for? What’s more important than the public education system, which also happens to be Polk’s number one employer? What higher priority are you protecting by sitting by quietly on the war of extermination against your own schools?

Yes, we have much work to do at home

Lord knows the Polk School District has issues.

We’re in a better place internally and with senior leadership than we were 18 months ago. But we have a long way to go.

We are still in the stupidest, most destructive impasse with our teachers you can imagine. We should be lined up, together, fighting Tallahassee for the existence of public education. Instead, various people decided a year ago it was better to fight for Tallahassee against our own people. And it’s not even really about money. Trust me on this. In my five months on the board, I’ve learned that.

And unfortunately, our HR department has very poor stakeholder management skills. Moving ahead, Supt. Byrd, who is doing a good job elsewhere on many fronts, needs to fix this and change the culture to one of customer service for internal and external stakeholders alike. I will be pushing for it relentlessly. We cannot afford to have self-inflicted wounds and alienation. (And yes, I know about the paras, folks who are asking. I’m trying to get answers. More to come. But this is an example of bad stakeholder management.)

We have an elected School Board whose politics and cultural affinities will not allow them, as a whole, to recognize that we are in a battle against our own extermination. And that the legislators they’ve supported are our exterminators. They want our exterminators to pat them on the head. The 2018 electorate is going to have to decide how it feels about that. I don’t know what else to say.

But understand this: no matter what our flaws, the vast majority of people employed by the Polk School District care about serving Polk kids and people. They take this constitutional mandate seriously. Our legislators just don’t. You see it in how they have completely shirked their own responsibilities — and blamed everyone but themselves.

Our constitutional obligation

The Polk County School District, like every other county district in Florida, is nothing more than an instrument created by the people and government of Florida to administer compulsory education services to the children of the geographic space it covers.

Here is how the Florida constitution puts this in the opening of Article IX:

The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require…

Here’s what it says about local districts:

SECTION 4. School districts; school boards.—
(a) Each county shall constitute a school district; provided, two or more contiguous counties, upon vote of the electors of each county pursuant to law, may be combined into one school district. In each school district there shall be a school board composed of five or more members chosen by vote of the electors in a nonpartisan election for appropriately staggered terms of four years, as provided by law.
(b) The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein. Two or more school districts may operate and finance joint educational programs.

Your legislators act as if local school districts somehow got together and inserted that into the state constitution. They act as if local districts beg them for the right to exist. They act as if they do local communities a favor by allowing school districts to carry out this constitutional and statutory mandate. They act as if it’s optional for us to provide free compulsory education services to 100,000 kids, regardless of background.

Deadbeat parents

Let’s be clear: your state government — the same one that hates teachers and public education — orders your local district to operate. It orders your district to fulfill state-mandated compulsory education requirements for all Polk kids in all Polk communities. And yet, your state government, your legislators, act like we’re stealing something from them. Inconveniencing them. Whining.

In fact, they remind me of the sleaziest kind of deadbeat parent. Create a child. Forsake the child. Blame the abandoned the single parent trying to raise it. Then create another, different child, and lavish attention on it because they find it prettier and richer.

On top of that, they’re trying to divert the little bit of child support the single parent gets to new, fraudulent charter schools.

I’m not talking about special-purpose charters like Achievement Academy (for autistic kids), the montessori schools, and New Beginnings. Those schools serve niches that can be quite helpful and provide instructional choice — not just enrollment curation choice.

I’m not talking about existing conversion/general population charters like McKeel, Lake Wales Charter, or Discovery, which mimic our own district magnet schools. They are all facts on the ground with whom we need to build bridges and partnership models. A lot of this stuff hurts them, too.

I’m not even talking about the handful of “reputable” KIPP-type schools that Richard Corcoran claims to want to recruit through his “Schools of Hope Fraud legislation. I assure you KIPP wants nothing to do with the compulsory education of communities served by Crystal Lake or Westwood or McLaughlin. If you don’t believe me, ask them: they don’t do “turnaround” schools. That’s too hard for them.

I’m not talking about any of those kind of charters.

The logical end of fraudulent model

I’m talking about a new wave of shameless resource extractors, who want to use compulsory education requirements to mine the richest, whitest kids they can find to drive up property values for their property holding companies. Or they want to prey on “failure factory” hype to lure vulnerable people into fraudulent promises of escape.

We have one of the first kind aiming for South Lakeland right now. I’m going to call it the “Kelli Stargel VAM school” from now on.

Associate Superintendent John Small asked the operators of this K-8 school to consider opening in Northeast Polk, where they might actually serve a public purpose. He got crickets.

No, the “Kelli Stargel VAM School” knows what it wants: South Lakeland. This is despite the fact that the district has already purchased a nearby site for a new school with your money.

The chairman of the board of this school represents a thing called “the Profitable Group.” Really. Take a look at the board.

Even the previous School Board saw this for what is was and refused to approve it. And then your state Board of Education — the same one that mocked Jackie Byrd and ordered the illegal turnaround transfers — overruled that refusal.

None of our legislators in Tallahassee have spoken up to help us with that. The same way no one spoke up about the VAM transfers. In fact, with the exception of Tom Lee, who has spoken up with moral indignation about a lot of things, you’ve been represented entirely by morally deadbeat legislators working in a morally and fiscally deadbeat Legislature.

They are simply not up to the task of fulfilling the constitutional responsibility “to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” They’ve proven that endlessly. And I will keep saying it until they take that responsibility as seriously as I do.

The worst senator

Kelli Stargel is worse. She actively cheers this on. Here’s a communication from our School District lobbyist about a bill she filed just before the weekend.

Additionally, Sen. Stargel filed an amendment this afternoon that replicates the House’s charter bill, including the portion that dilutes and diverts Title I funding to schools and eliminates the ability to spend Title I dollars on districtwide programs such as our parent centers, BookBridge, Pre-K and early learning programs, summer learning and supports for our turnaround schools. In addition to the Title I language, this bill allows unlimited replication of high performing charter schools and systems (there is currently a cap of 1 per year), allows for dual enrollment at out-of-state universities, and eliminates the Board’s ability to negotiate charter contracts by prohibiting any changes being made to the standard contract developed by the Department of Education.

As I review this, she’s doing worse stuff I can’t even keep track of.

When I call Kelli Stargel an enemy of our community, this is why. It’s because she is. Her record shows it. Her priorities show it. Her indifference shows it. I have explained why she’s a deadbeat enemy to her face in a Lakeland City Commission conference room. And I’ve explained it to her face in her office in Tallahassee. She went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Neither of those was recorded, unfortunately. I’d love to explain it to her on camera for posterity. Anytime, anyplace. You know how to get me.

I think Stargel has gotten away with this over the years because she puts R by her name; and no one had been willingly to publicly and relentlessly tie her anti-teacher and anti-child policies to her name. It’s hard for most people to draw the line from name to policy impact. But I’m pretty good at drawing that line. Expect me to continue to draw it for as long as I need to. If you don’t like it, Kelli supporters, come challenge me in 2020. Bring it on.

In the meantime, if you don’t like what she’s doing, stop her in the grocery store. Tell her about it on the ballfield. Make her defend her record and priorities. Give her no rest. Give her no peace. She gives teachers and kids no rest and no respect and no peace.

The point of “service”

Like our president, I have a life outside of politics and governing that I enjoy. No one’s life is perfect. But mine is richer and more comfortable than most human beings who have ever lived, through very little of my own doing. I am eternally aware of how that obligates me.

Unlike our president, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I sought to earn that life by doing something important and helpful with it before I die. I knew I was up against a powerful enemy in Tallahassee and at home. I knew the enormity of what’s required from human beings to try to provide compulsory education in the toxic Florida model. And I know how powerless I really am. I am scratching and clawing every day in whatever way I can to accumulate the power we need to destroy the inhumane Florida model and build something better.

But I may very well fail in everything I do and go back to my life diminished. I can live with that. Failure is always an option; and I am not remotely important. Success will depend almost entirely on whether you, the Polk public, recognize what’s happening and mobilize to stop it. At the same time that many other people are mobilizing their publics in other places. It will depend on whether you believe me — and others — and act on it.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe this. It’s hard to believe we face such destructive bad faith from people meant to serve us. But I know, from long close study, that these people either want to exterminate the idea that we should develop and care for all kids — or they lack the moral courage to object. That’s a distinction without a difference.

So, I’m going to be in everyones’s face about that until it changes or you throw me out of office. I don’t know what else to do. Come join me. Run for office. Engage. Know your enemies. Because this is the fight of our community’s life.

6 comments

  1. Sarah Fortney

    I’m ready to fight with you Billy!

  2. Joyce Hostler

    Have always felt Stargel was detrimental to public schools. She seems intellectually shallow.

  3. Marjorie Smith

    I am with Billy! When Kelli Stargel came through my classroom several years ago and mentioned in passing that her sister was a teacher of “vegetables”, I wanted to tell her what I thought. Unfortunately I was in front of my students and could not use language like that. I could not believe that she had the nerve to say something like that while visiting a special education classroom and then I realized just how out of touch she is with education and obviously the education system. Time for a big change in Tallahassee.

  4. Katherine Langford

    I just reposted. I am in your army fighting for the best for our students, our schools and our future.

  5. John D Partain

    Thank you, Billy.

  6. Terry Brigman

    Keep fighting Billy.

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