The board should make Ralph Arza apologize, in person, before approving his real estate venture

Here’s one of my top personal axioms about power: don’t thank it or apologize to it.

As a board member, I will never ask for an apology or thanks from anyone. For official power to expect either, in my view, is both gross and weak. Indeed, there is no act more impotent in public life than publicly soliciting an apology and having that request ignored.

And that brings us to BridgePrep and its key spokesman Ralph Arza — convicted witness tamperer; noted racist; disgraced former lawmaker; close political ally of the Florida Department of Education, Manny Diaz, and Kelli Stargel; and true face of Florida’s “choice” movement. At this point, Florida’s choice movement is much more accurately described as Florida’s “grift” movement. See full background here.

On Tuesday of this week, School Board Chair Lynn Wilson twice called on Arza to apologize for sending nasty, threatening, insulting letters to new Polk board members Lisa Miller and Sarah Fortney. It’s darkly hilarious that Arza singled out the two new female members and ignored me. I guess you can add “would-be intimidator of women” to his list of credits. Except, he picked the wrong two women.

Both times, Chairman Wilson asked for this apology from Arza just before he joined with Kay Fields, Sarabeth Reynolds, and Lori Cunningham in moving Arza’s school forward.

See one clip here for his full statement from the work session.

Key quote:

“I thought that letter was misguided, terribly inappropriate, ill-conceived, ill-advised, and terribly unfortunate…I’m going to make a public appeal to Mr. Arza to apologize to those board members.”

Let me say this first: I like Lynn Wilson a lot. I think he’s a great chair with a deft touch in managing the personalities and intensities of this now very active board and very engaged public. He did yeoman’s work with the sales tax. Had he been challenged in his election in 2018, I would have given him money and publicly supported him. This is less a critique of Lynn than an analysis of how local school boards are often overmatched in the grifter bloodsport that Florida education governance has become. It’s an analysis of how local boards advertise their own irrelevance and often fail to use the few actual powers at their disposal.

Lynn Wilson, Sarabeth Reynolds, Lori Cunningham, and Kay Fields each have the power, individually, to make Ralph Arza apologize in person

Here’s the full board discussion and BridgePrep vote from Tuesday night. It’s well worth watching. It starts about 3:20.

You will see multiple board members use our board’s structural weakness as a positive argument for complicity with an organization that thinks Ralph Arza is worth paying to represent it.

The board majority voted to enter into negotiations with BridgePrep, Arza’s school.  That means they have to come back for another vote. Understand, I will not make that vote easy for anyone. I’m voting against it. Period. If I have anything to do with it, everyone will own every piece of how this has gone down — or goes down.

Lisa and Sarah haven’t asked for any apologies. And Arza and crew didn’t do anything to me to apologize for.

But even if they did, I wouldn’t believe the lame apology of a convicted witness tamperer; noted racist; disgraced former lawmaker; close ally of the Florida Department of Education, Manny Diaz, Kelli Stargel; true face of Florida’s “choice” movement; and would-be intimidator of women. Or the people who have chosen him, with intention, as their henchman.

However, if Chairman Wilson or any individual board member in the majority is actually serious about the apology he publicly requested, each has the power to insist on it. The superintendent could do it too. Simply say: my recommendation or my vote hinges on a public apology and questioning, in person — both from Mr. Arza and the people who employ him to their dirty work.

All it takes it one vote from a board member or one sentence from the superintendent. They have the power. And I would think, if BridgePrep really wants to prove it’s not an open grift, that it would come and do everything in its power to reassure the public.

Would you yodel naked?

The retort is likely: if we make Arza and BridgePrep apologize in person, in public, and take questioning from board members, they will refuse to do it and just go to Tallahassee to win their appeal.

Yeah, sure, maybe. So what does that say about who we’re going into business with here?

And where does that stop? How much dignity are you willing to shed on behalf of the Polk voters and taxpayers? What is the limit of what BridgePrep could do to you before you defend yourself and the people who voted for you? What if BridgePrep and the Florida Charter School Alliance demanded: the entire School Board must stand on its head and yodel while naked — or we go to Tallahassee. 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

My response is: go ahead. The corrupt, rigged state appeal system is a metaphorical hostage well worth shooting with a figurative gun.

Go ahead, let Richard Corcoran and the Board of Education put on display how corrupt and rigged the system is — and who benefits from it. Let Ron DeSantis and Manny Diaz and Kelli Stargel jam Ralph Arza values down Polk County’s throat.

Go ahead, revert to South Lakeland. They will find that McKeel and Lawton Chiles and Lincoln already have the “desirable” choice “market” locked up among folks who avoid their zoned schools. I suspect that’s why nobody’s heard a peep from the last grifter charter school that appealed a board decision and won the right to grift in South Lakeland. Remember “The Profitable Group” school that won approval from the Board of Education? These resource extraction schools need resources — i.e. wealthy, easy kids — to market the grift.  In South Lakeland, my sense is those families are pretty content with their existing options. We’ll see.

Impotence is not an excuse

As I’ve said before, power’s greatest malevolence comes in making the weaker party complicit with the stronger in its own subjugation. I do not dispute that Tallahassee has much more power than we do. But we’re not completely impotent. If board members think they are, I wonder what they’re doing up there on the dais.

And even if we were completely impotent, there’s no excuse for using that as an argument for approval. There’s no excuse for complicity in a naked power play from a convicted witness tamperer; noted racist; disgraced former lawmaker; close ally of the Florida Department of Education, Manny Diaz, Kelli Stargel; true face of Florida’s “choice” movement; and would-be intimidator of women.

Or, more importantly, the people who chose him, with intention, as their henchman.

As it stands now, our dialogue with BridgePrep/Arza is going something like this:

Us: Please apologize for your outrageous behavior.

Them: [Silence]

Us: Ok, sorry for asking. Have a good time grifting our kids and communities. 

2 comments

  1. Linda Kasprzak

    Love reading your posts and support your positions wholeheartedly. I’m a lifelong resident of Lakeland and while I don’t have children in the school system, I’m a big believer in fully funding equal public education access to everyone. Thanks for taking on the powers that be.

  2. Steve Abney

    Public schools. Public money. Public accountability. Makes sense.

    Private school, public money, no accountability? Who would vote for that?