John Small, K12, the Looneys, and staff’s contempt for your elected School Board

[Important update at the end of the essay]

Last Thursday night, more than a week ago, I sent the email that follows below to members of our senior staff and John Small. Receipt of this email has yet to be acknowledged, much less have its questions answered in a response.

For context, John Small is the former deputy superintendent. He retired last year and went to work for K12, an online education provider. See this screen shot from his Linked-in page.

By all accounts I have heard from multiple district sources at multiple levels, and according to my own observation, John Small remains Superintendent Jackie Byrd’s most influential advisor — even in “retirement” and in service to K12.

As I understand it, K12 is one of three existing vendors for the Polk Virtual School. (State law mandates that we provide three, as I understand it.) Polk Virtual School is different from Florida Virtual School, which has its own vendors and serves about 5000 kids in Polk.

In the couple days before I sent this note, I received information that K12 had worked (or was trying to work) a large expansion of its presence in Polk by getting the district to purchase 5,000 or so licenses, despite the fact that very few Polk kids were using it. The cost I heard was up to $1.8 million.

I became concerned that I had voted for something without realizing it. I asked the School Board’s diligent and kind executive assistant to help me figure out when/if we voted for a K12 expansion or expenditure. And we could not find anything.

So I sent this note seeking clarity to several members of senior staff and to Small himself.

I have said many times in many ways in public meetings and one-on-one conversations that I want to be made aware of personal relationships with major contractors.

So it troubles me that John Small is a vice president and Jacque Bowen apparently affiliated with K12 and that these relationships have never been openly discussed at the board level.

I will discuss them at the next meeting. I’m now trying to go back and figure out what exactly I’ve voted for on this. I asked Susan to inquire about this earlier today. But it’s probably easier for everybody to do it myself. Please respond to me, rather than her.

Please provide me a detailed account of our contracting history with K-12, what precisely we use K-12 for, and how much we are spending on them. Please confirm if it is true that we recently purchased more than 5,000 K12 licenses and that fewer than 200 are being used.

I want to know if I have voted for a K12 deal that John Small helped negotiate without my knowing it. I honestly don’t know. But I will find out. And if I missed something I should have caught, I will take responsibility for it with the public.

The Polk School District is not a piggybank for people who used to work here — or people who have relationships with our leadership. I made that clear when I discussed Acceleration Academy and the SIS system with several of you.

We have a history of relationships blowing up in the taxpayers’ faces and our faces.

Not only have I not received an accounting of the K12 relationship, I haven’t even received an official acknowledgment that I asked for it. We’re a week out from my request.

I had one unofficial conversation with someone who saw the email, which left me even more confused about this issue.

“I made the decision” and didn’t tell anyone

That brings us to the Looneys — and the review I asked Jackie Byrd and Wes Bridges for back in December. You can see The Ledger story on this at this link.

The story is pretty well done, except that I don’t think I’ve ever “cited bias” in my critique of the district’s institutional behavior toward the Looneys. I’ve cited bizarrely unequal outcomes that I can’t explain. It might be bias; it might be something else. I want it explained.

But let’s look at this line from Jackie Byrd’s statement.

Byrd stated that after discussing Townsend’s request in December, “I made the decision not to pursue such an investigation for two reasons: The expense of an outside investigation would strain the School District’s already very limited financial resources, and it would set a troublesome precedent.”

Put aside the merits of Byrd’s argument here. I made this request in December and had preliminary, positive, conversations about it. Yet, no one bothered to inform me of the decision not to move forward, much less the reasoning for it.

I had to infer it by the lack of activity.

Hoping and praying

Consider what you’ve read here and think about what Kay Fields said when I brought the 2010 George Jenkins investigation of the Looneys to the School Board’s attention.

“And I guess my response to that would be that was seven years ago. And I would imagine that if there was anything we should be aware of that the staff would have told us by now. I would hope and pray they would.”

Here’s the audio/video of that discussion. It’s in the first three minutes or so.

Staff would have told us by now. Really? Do you, my reader, believe that?

I am putting together a massive, detailed timeline of district institutional behavior dating to 2003, as seen through the lens of the Looneys. It will lay out quite a bit that staff didn’t think the elected board — or the public — needed to know. And I suspect the elected board had little interest in knowing what staff didn’t tell them.

I’m hoping to have this chronology finished in the next few days. I also hope that it will make any eventual review easier to perform and more focused than our previous investigations.

The board is the community

When a board member says “we” or “us” or “I”, they are actually saying “the community.” Board members are the public’s only real local link to the power wielded by unelected educational officials.

As we wait for a K12 accounting and what form the Looney review will take, let’s consider Fields’ quote with a slight tweak to the pronouns involved

I would imagine that if there was anything [the community] should be aware of that the staff would have told [the community] by now. I would hope and pray they would.

I think events far predating even Kathryn LeRoy have proven that demonstrably false in Polk County. I ran for School Board saying I would fight to change that. I meant it, as I hope the community can see.

The governing philosophy on display in Kay Fields’ quote vests unelected staff with enormous, unaccountable power within our organization. It benefits senior staff — and those with influence on senior staff — to the exclusion of the community.

I think that’s illustrated pretty well by that fact that John Small, when I checked a few days ago, was Kay Fields’ single largest campaign donor.

Now, I want to be clear about a few things:

    • The donation is pretty small ($200).
    • I’ve given quite a bit more to the candidates I support.
    • John Small has every right to donate politically to anyone he chooses, just like anyone else does. In fact, I’m glad he did so because it helps clarify what he values as a still important figure affiliated with the Polk School District.

John values the status quo in how our organization operates, as does Kay Fields. It makes sense that he values a hands off approach to the board’s governing role. It enhances his influence. I get it.

I don’t value the status quo. I’m fighting every day to change it. I think most candidates running for School Board want to see it change, too. Indeed, I think the community wants  to change our leadership culture.  But we’ll see.

I think all of this provides a wonderful, clarifying choice in 2018.

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Update:

[Within this essay, I made a reference to a conversation I perceived to be unofficial. It was with Marc Hutek, acting deputy superintendent after Small retired. I just received this communication, Friday morning, from the superintendent’s secretary JoAnne Clanton:

Good morning Mr. Townsend,

Mrs. Byrd spoke with Dr. Hutek this morning and he was under the impression he had addressed all of your questions earlier.  However, Dr. Hutek is having staff pull the information and it will be provided to you and the board next week.

I had asked for Hutek to call me because various sources told me that he objected to whatever the K12 deal was. I also had been told that his objection to the deal may have played a role in him not getting the permanent deputy superintendent job. I wanted to know if that was true. As you can imagine, that’s a sensitive conversation, and I wanted to protect Hutek from any fallout for speaking with me. For the record, he told me he did not think he lost the permanent deputy superintendent job because of the K12 issue. The rest of what he told me was confusing and inconclusive. I came away certain that there had been some kind of K12 deal proposed; but I was distinctly unclear as to whether it happened. And why or why not. 

For the record, I had hoped Daryl Ward would get the deputy superintendent job. I told Jackie Byrd in a very brief conversation some weeks ago that I thought Ward’s skill set would help her in managing relationships within the organization and the community. I also made it clear that it was, obviously, her call to make.  

Jackie chose Auburndale High Principal John Hill, which is a perfectly reasonable decision. I support Jackie’s choice and John Hill and wish him well. I think he shares some of the skill sets I liked in Daryl Ward. Hill created an excellent community climate at AHS. 

But I don’t want anyone punished for standing up and trying to do the right thing, if that is, in fact, what Marc Hutek did, which I’m not entirely sure.

And I think you all have the right to know all this. So now that my conversation with Hutek is considered an official statement by the district, here is what I sent back to JoAnne Clanton today:

Thank you. Mr. Hutek certainly did not provide any detailed accounting of our relationship with K12 or the status of the K12 expansion deal. He said it was proposed but that he didn’t “think” it happened. I did not understand him to be giving an official district position because he was so uncertain.

Several other sources have told me the expansion to 5000 licenses did happen. So I actually don’t know. You may share this as appropriate with whomever it’s legal to share with.

One comment

  1. Lauren Magnusson

    Thank you for continuing to press for transparency!L