Changing culture requires confronting it: explaining my administrator vote

Take a look at the brief clip that follows. It comes from last week’s regular School Board meeting. In it, I explain why I felt it morally and ethically necessary to vote against a slate of administrator hires and promotions.

In short, the circumstances of two specific appointments trouble me deeply. Our HR department has said it is reviewing both of them, based on my prodding. With that in mind, I let top district staff know on the Monday afternoon before the meeting that I could not support these administrator appointments. And then I raised it again at the work session Tuesday morning. You can see that discussion starting at the 2:57:00 mark in the video that follows.

My goal in providing this advance notice was to avoid surprising or embarrassing people on Tuesday evening. Typically, the new administrator introductions make for a happy occasion. The appointees often bring their families to share in celebration.

Kay Fields and I agree

At the end of the work session discussion, you can hear Chair Kay Fields say: “The only thing that I’ll say about his situation here is that I think it’s very important for us as board members to understand our role. Our role is not to hire and fire. That’s Miss Jackie’s role.” She’s referring to Superintendent Jackie Byrd.

I want to address that for a moment. In short, I agree. I wrote about that last week in an essay about my personnel philosophy. You can read at this link. Key passage:

Personnel issues and changes are among the thorniest of issues for an active School Board member. I only supervise four employees. The vast majority of the rest report up to one of those four: the superintendent. Yet, serving 100,000 kids well requires a healthy human organism of 13,000 employees (and we really need more) willing to do hard, hard work for generally substandard pay. I believe I’m responsible for establishing a culture, through policy and comment, that reflects my community’s expectations of leadership and fairness. I’m responsible for the setting conditions that allow that organism to thrive at all levels…

…The three [personnel issues] I mentioned are the only three in which I’ve intervened. And I did so because they involve allegations of abusive or unethical behavior. I felt it was my duty to intervene. I’m not intervening directly in a number of other personnel decisions whose circumstances and consequences give me pause. These seem like judgment calls. And I think I have to let my leaders exercise judgement, even when those judgments make me uncomfortable.

I find this point-of-view completely compatible with Kay’s point-of-view.

We are required to vote on personnel issues

But there’s another fact to consider. These appointments came to the board as slate for our approval. We had to vote on them. Typically, this vote happens on the consent agenda. But we always vote on administrator changes, one way or another. These are not play votes. They’re real. If we have no role in ratifying personnel decisions, these votes should not come to us. As long as they do, I will vote my conscience consistent with the oath I took and the leadership culture I expect in this district.

I was informed by legal staff that I could not vote individually on the two appointments that concerned me — and staff showed no inclination to pull them and make them interim appointments. So this issue required a single up or down vote. Rather than name the two appointments that concerned me — and make an awkward situation more awkward and personal — I voted against the full slate. I’ve personally reached out directly to as many of the new administrators who are unconnected to my concerns as I can to explain my reasoning and apologize for the awkwardness.

No apologies for responsiveness

During the work session, Tim Harris and I had an exchange rooted in one of the personnel issues. Tim was unhappy that I acted in relation to one of “his” schools, meaning a school in his district, and that I did so without notifying him directly.

At one point, Tim said this: “I’m sorry you don’t feel the professional courtesy to at least notify the person who is dealing with that school. Even though you’re not wrong, you at least owe the professional courtesy to your fellow board member to be aware of what’s going on that you found out through a personal relationship with someone.”

Very quickly:

1) As I’ve shown, we were going to vote on a personnel change related to this situation. Had I notified Tim directly, I feel certain that would be a violation of the Sunshine Law.

2) Very shortly after I notified staff of my concerns, staff shared the information with Tim. I don’t have the precise timeline; but it was prompt. I think that’s how it’s supposed to work.

3) The reference to a “personal relationship with someone” is false and uninformed. I first became aware of this issue because a multitude of people affiliated with the school — probably more than a dozen by now — contacted me to express support for an employee losing a job. They felt we were ruining this person’s career and casting off a competent and well-liked employee for no good reason. And several alleged a decision-making environment that would violate our sexual harassment policy.

I had met one of these people, once, at a district event where I spent about six hours working and talking to people who work for our district. That is the extent of personal relationship I had with anyone. But these folks did know me by reputation. They knew me as a board member who would listen and take this issue seriously. And I have.

I spoke with a number of people before bringing this to our HR staff. I only brought it to HR staff after my own due diligence convinced me that the allegations were credible and worthy of close investigation. It’s also worth noting that every single adult who talked to me — as opposed to students — fears retaliation. And there is some suggestion of it happening already. That troubles me, too.

In short, I think I have done my duty to the public and the people who work for the School District. And I make no apologies for it.

Indeed, I recently had an exchange with an up-and-coming administrator in the district about the reality of professional life in education in the Florida model.

Since I have been an educator I can honestly tell you there hasn’t been a day go by that I haven’t felt as if my job hung on by the slightest of threads regardless of how hard I worked or how successful I was. That feeling is not uncommon and to be honest it is taxing and stressful for nearly every educator I’ve ever worked with. That has never changed my approach; I will continue to work as hard as possible always keeping the best interests of our students at the forefront of my decision making.

This is a leader the district considers successful.

If we are ever going to build a humane, dynamic, and inclusive public education system in Florida — and Polk County — we have to begin to think of our people as people. We have to develop them and value them and give them some modicum of protection. We can’t subject them to unreasoned impunity.

Building this culture is a long-term project. And I will be talking about it at our retreat. But it will never happen if we’re not willing to confront and challenge, in uncomfortable ways, the damaging aspects of the culture we have today.

5 comments

  1. Sarah Fortney

    Bravo Billy 🙂

  2. Joan Hatfield King

    Kudos to you. When all is said and done, we have to be true to ourselves.

  3. Bill Daniels

    Keep up the good work…changes in policy are needed and I believe the school board sets the policy and the Superintentent should implement and administer the day-day- policy..Board members should be able to make any requests to admin.staff for info that assists them to form sound policy…

  4. Charles Leigh

    You acted with integrity. Please continue with the courage of your convictions. In the past these consent agenda items have been blindly approved and rubber-stamped by school board members. It’s time for that routine to come to an end. If the old guard on the board is unhappy with that, they can either resign or be voted out at the next election. For too long the good ol’ boys and girls in Imperial Polk County have been content to run the show without regard to proper stewardship and oversight. Those days need to come to an end and I commend you for speaking out and demanding answers.

  5. The board needs to be even more active in hiring issues.

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