A battle for the future of the Polk District, part 2: Leadership demands some personal risk

School Board Attorney Wes Bridges sent this note to School Board members yesterday concerning the Tenoroc High School issue.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have been asked to advise you that the Florida School Boards Association has been contacted in connection with comments published about a Polk County high school principal. The individual complained that such comments may constitute an abuse of power and misconduct in office.  FSBA is not an executive branch agency, nor is it a regulatory body.  Accordingly, it has no police or enforcement powers.  It is, however, close to the center of the education universe in Florida, and if its officers are receiving calls, governmental agencies may be, as well.

Concerns were also raised about the board’s potential liability exposure for comments made by individual board members.  Generally, school boards would not be liable for the statements of individual board members not accompanied by concomitant action by the school board, but that doesn’t mean any potential lawsuit would not name the school board and require defense. It would appear that happenings in Polk County are visible in Tallahassee.  I will keep you informed if I receive further information.

The second part is too opaque to know who or what, exactly, Wes is talking about. Perhaps we’ll find out in coming days. Maybe it’s Tim Harris; maybe it’s me. Both? Who knows?

But I was already aware of the first part. I heard a few days ago from a firsthand source that Jason Looney is inquiring about ways to file some sort of complaint against me. That does not surprise me. Indeed, it would not surprise me if he sued me, whether as part of the board or personally. In either case, I’m quite comfortable with my actions. I will happily look every voter and taxpayer in the eye and explain myself, without apology or regret. And I will happily accept their verdict at the ballot box.

If I have to defend myself personally, legally, I’ll hire a lawyer and mount a vigorous defense. Vigorous.

Liability and morality

Let’s be very clear about what’s happened here: I was contacted by multiple people concerned that Brandi Garcia Blanchard had been victimized by behavior that would violate the Board’s written sexual harassment policies. I performed some due diligence. And then I reported these concerns to my staff chain of command. I did not go public. Neither did Brandi Blanchard for that matter. I did emphasize several times to staff that I expected them to take these allegations seriously and investigate accordingly. At the same time, the record will show that I facilitated information flow from both sides of the complaint in the interest of a fair and thorough investigation. I provided help to every person on every side who came to me with information to share with investigators.

When the investigation became public record, I provided an accurate account of it — and a similar investigation from 2010. I am required to vote on personnel matters. I don’t have the power to dictate personnel moves and have never attempted to. But the superintendent’s decisions come to us for ratification. I consider it a vital part of my role to publicly explain my reasoning on contentious issues that require me to cast a vote. Indeed, I cast a public vote in July against replacing Brandi Blanchard. I felt I could not fully explain it at the time because I did not know the status of any investigation. What I wrote last week fully explained my vote. And it publicly critiqued the mandatory staff meeting at Tenoroc at which Tim Harris gave full-throated support to Looney, in front of witnesses, while the investigation was still open.

Morally, my conscience in this is completely clear.

Legally, had I ignored Brandi Blanchard’s claims, I think I would have opened myself and the Board to much greater liability than any action I’ve taken in trying to fairly and morally navigate a hopelessly confusing and incoherent process.

The risks of leadership

However, the law is a living thing, given life by people and human decisions. Anybody can sue anybody for anything. And, quite frankly, anything can happen. I’m descended from lawyers. I’ve written about law. I know that it means possibility. So I’m not smug about any of this. I knew when this started I was taking a personal risk.

But I think all real leadership demands some personal risk, which is why we see so little of it. I hope I am showing something that looks like leadership here.

However, I have taken a much smaller personal risk than the many people who gave on-the-record statements under their real names in these two investigations. I have taken a much smaller risk than the people who originally came forward on Blanchard’s behalf. Indeed, on July 23, Jason Looney sent an email to district staff openly blaming complaints on a teacher, by name, who hasn’t even been interviewed as a witness in any investigation.

I’ve taken a smaller risk than anybody in the district who tries to report abusive behavior. Before I joined the Board, it voted unanimously to pay Kathryn LeRoy more than $200K to go away based on a whistleblower report. By contrast, the key whistleblowers in that report got nothing but personal harm.

Say what you want about Greg Rivers, but without his allegations, we’d all still be dealing with Kathryn LeRoy. The Polk District gave him nothing to go away. It just cut him loose. And former district office secretary Carol Trudell, who simply gave a statement, got transferred out of the district office in a way that smacks of punishment.

The importance of empathy

As a district, we display very little empathy for the people working and suffering on the ground in our schools and facilities. The people on the ground can’t take all the risks and suffer all the consequences for it while their leaders do neither. That’s a recipe for the morale problems that we have. It’s one of my most urgent concerns.

Monday’s mandatory pep rally, though well-intentioned, illustrates this somewhat. I’m going to have a constructive critique about the pep rally event in coming days. I did not attend; but I hear the speakers were quite good.

However, I think everyone agrees it was very, very, very hot. Our teachers and staff sat in a stadium without much shade from the morning summer sun. The board members and other VIPs sat in shaded dugout. And this picture is sort of a metaphor for our leadership approach to our people.

We need to demonstrate our willingness to share risk and sacrifices and consequences as small as sunburn and as large as threats to financial and social well-being. Until we do, it will be hard to credibly argue that we support all of our employees.

2 comments

  1. Darrell Robertson

    Billy Townsend,

    I voted for you because I thought you were someone who would stand up to the status quo and the “good ole boy” network flourishing in this county. I have not been disappointed in the least by your actions. I could not be more proud of you than I am right now. I don’t have the financial means to do so, but if I did, I would personally pay your legal bills for any lawsuit brought against you. Please continue to fight the good fight and know that there are many more folks like me in the trenches of PCSB that support you 100%.

  2. Janet Roberson

    Thank you for the current information regarding the continued despair existing in the Polk County School District. Unfortunately, change will never occur in an organization when the mindset of the so-called leaders is to do things “the way they have always been done”, to be complacent with mediocrity, and to only show support to the ones who “go with the flow” and never question poor decisions or unfair treatment doled out to other employees.

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