The Aramark contract and the Polk School District’s most damaging internal pathology

I’m an active and inquisitive board member. I do not believe the people of Polk County elected me to sit idly by and collect a $40,000/year salary awaiting “recommendations” from staff that I then rubberstamp as a formality when I show up for meeting once or twice per month.

I believe the people of Polk County elected me to solve problems and improve the culture and direction of Polk district leadership. That means I have to ask questions of staff leadership, so I can figure out what those problems are and how we might solve them.

Sometimes, I sense, this questioning annoys some staff members (but by no means all; many are extremely responsive and helpful) Staff are busy. I understand that, and I don’t hold annoyance against them. I try to be sensitive to their pressures and workload and not overburden them.

More significantly, I sense my interest in information annoys my fellow board members. In fact, I have been lectured in meetings more than once by fellow board members about my propensity to ask for information, via email and otherwise.

Kay Fields, particularly, during our “goal-setting” retreat, insisted that I follow a protocol for information gathering that staff prefers: this involves copying Superintendent Jackie Byrd and her executive assistant JoAnne Clanton on any request for information that I make of anyone via email. I think this is silly and burdensome for the superintendent and JoAnne. But that is what they and Kay and other members wanted.

In the interest of trying to be a team player, I agreed. So now, when I ask a question of leadership, JoAnne runs down the answer. And then she sends it in a general note to all board members without saying who asked the question or including the text of the question.

As voters, and stakeholders, I think it’s good for you to have this window of context into what I’m about to show you.

Within an hour late yesterday afternoon, I received two very unsatisfactory answers to questions I asked.

One concerned what specific mechanical steps the district/board needs to perform to get as many Lake Wales-area middle schoolers as possible to attend Lake Wales High, their home high school. This is a goal that everyone (Lake Wales and district) seems to share.

The answer I got — through a generalized answer to the board — was long and bureaucratically obtuse and did not answer my questions. It’s not worth printing here. I’ll revisit it at our April 24th meeting.

I am reprinting the second, because it was like a middle finger to me. Which means it was a middle finger to the public that elected me.

Very brief context: we have a long-standing (nearly two decade) contract for custodial management services with Aramark, the giant industrial services company. I think it’s about $1.8 million per year. I have recently become aware that there is some dissatisfaction from our people — those people we’re paying Aramark to manage — about how Aramark is managing them and maintaining equipment. Before we renew anything with Aramark, I want to explore these issues and the potential for going out to RFP/competitive bid. Or even doing the work ourselves in this era of starvation budgets.

What follows is my request for information, which I sent Sunday; followed by JoAnne Clanton’s response from late Tuesday; and my response to her.

Forgive the Sunday email, please. But this may have a time element. Happy to get an answer on Monday, if possible.

I’ve recently become aware of concerns about our relationship with Aramark for custodial service management. And I have two immediate questions.

Can someone please tell me when the current custodial management contract with Aramark is due to expire?

And what the mechanisms are for renewing or terminating it or opening it to bid?

In reviewing the contract, it appears that we’ve essentially had a contract with with them since 2001. I can’t find any terms for renewal/termination. Someone told me it’s a five-year contract up for renewal soon; but I’m having difficulty confirming that from the contract language.

I can tell you that I want us to put this contract to RFP/competitive bid. Or even consider doing without the contract and providing the services internally. I want to know what has to be done to preserve either of those options. Thanks.

I plan to address this on April 24.

Here’s the response I got late Tuesday:

Good afternoon School Board Members,

We received a request for a copy of Aramark’s contract; we are providing to all board members.

Thank you,

JoAnne B. Clanton
Executive Assistant to
Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd

It is safe to say that this response displeased me. So I answered like this, making a reference to the Lake Wales issue as well:

Also not what I asked. I have the contract. I have searched it, as I said in my question. I cannot find the renewal clauses. Perhaps that is because I am stupid. Perhaps not.

Let me rephrase: If I want to cancel this taxpayer-funded contract and begin an RFP process for this service, what do I need to do and when? Please answer that. Someone.

For instance, when is the contract is up for renewal? Does it just simply go on in perpetuity? Second, there is a July 1 date cited in reference to a five-year capital investment pay-off. Is July 1 a contractually significant date beyond that?

If there is no particular time element, I am Ok with waiting a bit to discuss this. But I want to know if there is a time element.

I have attempted to follow the requested process for information requests. I have been patient in allowing the requests to be filled. The two passive aggressive, unhelpful answers I just got in the last hour make me not see the value in following this procedure.

Frankly, no one elected JoAnne Clanton to anything. I only accept her as a gate keeper because I am trying to work cooperatively with Jackie. And Jackie asked for that. If I can’t get people to work cooperatively with me, as an elected official, then I have to reassess my approach.

I assure you that I will not get less curious about what our organization is up to, especially as we head into personnel season.

Anyone who wants to discuss this can call me at 8632094037.

A few takeaways:

— You will notice this has nothing, at all, to do with our PR department. Our PR department’s work ethic and competence has been my most pleasant surprise as a board member. If leadership shared PR’s commitment to transparency and confident engagement of the public, this would go much differently. PR, not JoAnne Clanton, should be the broker of important information. I guarantee you PR would have known not to send me that ridiculous response.

— These responses reflect an organization that lacks self-confidence. They reflect an organization afraid to engage in meaningful, constructive self-reflection for fear of some consequences. It’s an organizational pathology that many school boards share, I think, in large part due to the punitive state model. But we really, really suffer from it here. I have spoken with so many parents, journalists, and members of the public who have encountered this emotional scrunchiness in asking us for information. It is our number one internal obstacle to improving what we can improve at the local level. It’s our number one hurdle to building desperately-needed organizational leadership capacity. And it doesn’t even work. Ask yourself: am I more or less likely to make trouble for this Aramark deal now? And ultimately, it’s incredibly harmful for our people on the ground: our custodians, teachers, bus drivers, etc. I suspect that this staff leadership instinct against openness and frankness, more than any fraudulent accountability numbers, is what creates public skepticism about public education in Polk County.

— If you’re running for School Board, in my humble opinion, this pathology is the number one local issue you can help correct. This fear of the public; this fear of tackling hard questions; this fear of criticism. This complete lack of self-confidence. I’ve seen no evidence that the current board has any interest in changing this. They’ve made it very clear, with the possible exception of Lynn Wilson, that they consider my approach administratively out-of-bounds. And no one has actually openly endorsed my approach to driving culture change. I am an outlier. I recognize it. And so you, candidates and voters, have important choices to make about the future and culture of this district in 2018.

I hope this view of the present is useful.

7 comments

  1. Linda Kasprzak

    Love reading your posts, Billy. Please keep doing what you’re doing!

  2. Terry Worthington

    Members of the School Board are involved in the selection of janitorial services?

  3. Hmmm you have finally found where the rubber hits the road in Polk County School District. I always tell those who go to work there “not to default to the status quo!” And, the status quo is its fear based culture that uses blame, shame, shunning and demotion. I can not temember how many times I was told to “cya.” When I refused and did what I thought was the right thing to do they would tell me I would be punished for it. They were the very same people who stole time, misused funds, and stock piled their days off and sick days so when they retired they had months off! I never heard anyone talk so bad about our teachers like the district office personnel; it was just ugly.
    You are in the right track Billy Townsend; thank you from one heart sick Polk County educator who also tried to bring about change only to be judged hardhly by my supervisor and her secretary! Either one gets in line or they get punished at PCSB.

  4. Larry Milhorn

    Billy back when Dr Nichols left the district and Dr Stewart came in the Aramark contract was up and Dr Stewart was getting ready to recommend not to renew. Aramark came back and lowered their fee by about $500,000.00.

    I have had complaints from custodians and other school staff that the products that are provided to clean. Some of the management staff has been rude and unprofessional to the custodians and they are afraid to speak up. Wether Aramark stays or goes things need to change. The management staff for custodial services needs to be better trained on how to handle employee’s, in fact all of lower management in support services, maintenance, vehicle services needs this. I know this won’t fix everything but it would be a start.

    Thank you for taking interest in these employees that are often an after thought.

  5. Trent rowe

    Keep it up, Billy. The tenacious attitude of an investigative reporter.

  6. Cassie Gibson

    Again….I’ll say #BillyNeedsThreeFriendsin’18

  7. Marjorie Patterson

    Thank you for exploring these issues in a head on manner. We, the public, want answers and the issue is always skirted, never a direct answer. Thank you for the work you do.
    #BillyNeedsThreeFriendsIn 18