All schools are everyone’s schools

All schools are everyone’s schools

Polk County School Board members are divided into districts based on our residence. But we are elected and paid countywide. I live in District 1, in central and south Lakeland. Stakeholders for the schools in my district have every right to expect special attention from me. But I do not think of them as my schools, to the exclusion of responsibility to other schools or interests of other board members. If a fellow board member learns something important about Cleveland Court (to which I owe an overdue visit), I expect that board member to act. Likewise, if I learn something important about a school on the Ridge, I’m going to act on that. One of the more demanding and gratifying aspects of this job, and arguably the least public and political, is constituent service. I think if people interface with me and have a good customer/human experience, I am helping the system as a whole. So I take everybody’s call — and act if necessary and appropriate. Districts are not silos This is not a unanimous position on our School Board, however. My colleague Tim Harris, particularly, thinks in terms of geographic silos, organized by district. He says this quite a bit. It was particularly clear recently in a constituent issue I shared with staff. The staff forwarded this information to all board members via email. Tim replied, “Since this involves a district 7 school…I wonder why [the constituent] didn’t reach out to me? [Note: I removed identifying aspects from Tim’s note. And for Sunshine purposes, he was not responding to me. I feel certain he hit “reply all” without seeing that other board members had been added. We had no exchange. And I immediately removed all board member addresses from the email.] In defense of Tim, there is a certain geographic logic and reality that underpins this point-of-view. It’s physically impossible for me to spend as much time in the Northeast Polk community as my own in Lakeland. And during graduation season, he very graciously switched an attendee duty so that I could attend the graduation for Harrison, one of “my” high schools. I was very grateful. There are some logistical benefits to thinking this way. But, overall, I think this is a debilitating approach to tackling the core mission required of us each day: humanely, equitably, and competently educate 100,000 kids in Polk County. Actions reverberate through...

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Power, sex, and leadership: an urgent policy need

Power, sex, and leadership: an urgent policy need

Since June, I’ve become aware of three personnel decisions or relationships tainted by allegations of favoritism or mistreatment tied to undisclosed consensual sexual relationships. I’ve been made aware by the public or close stakeholders who provided detailed accusations. I make no claims about the truth of the allegations — only their existence and detail. One of three has already resolved itself with the departure of the top two officials in the District’s Accountability department. Two others are school-based. I’ve shared the same information given to me with District leadership and HR. I am satisfied for now that the information is being investigated. I am awaiting the outcome before speaking further on any details. Why I’m speaking publicly now I debated with myself whether to say anything at all publicly until the investigations have run their course. But Kathryn LeRoy’s behavior with Greg Rivers tore gaping holes in the morale and direction of the school district for a year before it became public. Silence was deadly. And I harshly criticized the School Board for its silence and inaction, before and during last year’s campaign. Moreover, people with knowledge of the school and departmental communities surrounding these issues are openly talking about them. Nobody’s silence will change that. It just lets the poison circulate indefinitely. Just as important, I want the people in our schools and district facilities to know that I will take allegations of abuse of power — sexual and otherwise — very, very seriously. The people who report abuse of power are always the most vulnerable to repercussions from that power. They need to know that their political leadership will hold their operational leadership accountable for a culture of fair and responsible leadership. That is how we will build common purpose and trust together. So everyone should know: I am watching what happens here extremely closely. The toxicity that grows up around these issues is deadly to a sense of community. I won’t have it, if I can do anything at all about it. The first thing I can do about it, systemically, I’ve already set in motion. A policy proposal Polk County schools have a sexual harassment policy and a nepotism policy. But we have no written policy concerning supervisors and non-marital romantic relationships. Apparently, very few districts have one. I have asked staff to formulate a policy that: — Mandates disclosure of any romantic/sexual relationship between...

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A deep dive on the Bryant Stadium problem and deal

A deep dive on the Bryant Stadium problem and deal

I am a conceptual supporter of purchasing Bryant Stadium from the City of Lakeland. I think it is likely the best overall option for the Polk district, the city of Lakeland (as a community), and for Lakeland High School’s overall athletics program, which I consider an important educational and community function. I think of athletics as an engagement tool. I liken athletics to like art, FFA, ROTC, band, and so many other educational functions that don’t produce test scores — but do produce memories, experience, and character development. There’s a reason many elite prep/private schools require all their kids to play a sport at some level. There is real educational value in teaming and competition, when properly modulated and governed. But if you made me vote tomorrow, I couldn’t support this deal. I still have too many questions; and I don’t think we’ve had an adequate public discussion yet. I blame myself, not my staff, for that. I’ll explain why below. And I am pleased that Bryant Stadium is the first topic we’re going to discuss at the work session a week from Tuesday, July 25th. I asked for this last week; but staff may have had this in mind to do anyway. The terms of the deal, as I understand them, seem reasonable. Two $600,000 payments ($1.2 million) for that property seems more than fair on the surface. We would also get the cell tower revenue, although I’m not certain what that is. Indeed, I think we have not had a precise enough accounting of the cost-benefit of buying the stadium (maintenance v. revenue, etc.) I want to see that. But even more importantly, I think we have put the specifics of the deal before the problem of Bryant Stadium’s future — and the future of field and stadium-based athletics and marching band for Lakeland High. I feel pretty certain that whatever we decide to do with Bryant Stadium, the people who are unhappy with the outcome will object to it far more intensely than the people who support it will cheer. Politically, this is a no-win situation. If I’m going to do something that will displease just about everybody, I at least want to make a decision that addresses the key underlying issues. I’m not comfortable on that yet. Maybe I can get comfortable on Tuesday; maybe I can’t. But I intend to make the decision I...

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How money matters in community education, part 1: 1200 teachers to hire

How money matters in community education, part 1: 1200 teachers to hire

This series of posts is primarily aimed at Polk’s business community and the wider community that doesn’t follow the intricacies of education policy and politics. It’s aimed at answering some basic questions: What are the real world consequences of years of self-defeating state stinginess in education funding? What does money buy? Why are community districts talking about money? Buying the basics of the service First and foremost, money buys personnel. It buys the fundamental delivery of the public education services that 100,000 Polk kids and families demand — and that the state constitution requires communities to provide. Indeed, state government provides most of the funding and virtually all of the mandates through which local districts fulfill constitutional obligations. Here is the funding breakdown in a pie chart. With that in mind, consider this: The Polk County School District would like to hire 1,200 teachers before the next year starts. That’s about 18 percent of our teacher force. Let that sink in. It’s the first exhibit in what money means to a community school district. It means basic staffing. What if the Lakeland Police Department was down 20 percent of the force? Would that be a crisis? A national, state, and local problem Here is a note from Polk Schools HR Director Teddra Porteous explaining where the 1,200 figure comes from. The 1200 is for overall hiring for the 17-18 school year if we were to hire them before school started, which is ideal. Essentially, it’s a combination of the amount of vacancies from natural attrition (retirements and resignations) we will have, the number of current provisional and long term subs in our classrooms and the anticipated vacancies when we open schools for the 17-18 school year. Lord knows, Polk has had localized employee relations problems. See this recent grievance hearing as an example. But the aversion to the teaching profession, when the demand for service is constantly growing, is commonplace virtually everywhere in Florida. See this link. Demoralization of teachers is real even in the “highest performing,” wealthiest districts. I have spoken to multiple of those administrators. This is what happens when you starve public schools and immiserate the teaching profession for 20 years. The teacher shortage, in Polk and elsewhere, reflects a combination of pay and stress level that human beings will not accept at scale. I wouldn’t accept it. That public education functions at all is attributable...

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“We let you win:” Tallahassee’s arrogance, thuggery, and cowardice in 1 Tweet

“We let you win:” Tallahassee’s arrogance, thuggery, and cowardice in 1 Tweet

This is a really funny, if pretty sinister, tweet. It’s been memory-holed; but I got a picture of it before it disappeared. Check it out. It’s the Tallahassee education establishment opening the kimono on who they really are just a bit. (You can click to embiggen.) Now let me give you the background. Meet Shawn R. Frost and Rebecca Negron. Rebecca Negron is a Martin County School Board member and the the wife of Senate President Joe “Schools of Fraud” Negron. You should know Joe Negron as the person who gives Kelli Stargel her marching orders for harming her own community. Rebecca Negron serves on the board of a thing called the Florida Coalition of School Board Members. It was formed in the last couple years as competition for the long-standing Florida School Board Association.  It touts itself as “conservative.” But it’s not. It’s really just a platform for sustaining the old Common Core/Test-and-Punish Florida model; crushing traditional schools and teachers; and setting up morally fraudulent charter schools to profit. The spokesman for FCSBM says “we” let Billy win Shawn R. Frost, who goes by the Twitter handle @strategyshawn, is named as the group’s media contact/spokesman. He is the author of the memory-holed tweet above. Frost, Rebecca Negron, and the FCSBM are big supporters of “Schools-of-Fraud” and the starvation budget. Its part of their business plan, errrr, policy vision. I did not know who Shawn was until a couple days ago; but he and I engaged in some good-natured Twitter trash talk Friday morning over Schools-of-Fraud. My election came up as a way of explaining to him that I believe my community elected me to fight his vision for Florida education. Much to my amazement and flattery, Shawn seemed to know all about the circumstances of that campaign. He knew my opponent, the issues, that I ran on “change.” He even used the word “educrat” at one point. I got under his skin just a touch, and he started vowing to defeat me in 2020 through his awesome powers. My fingers laughed at him through a keyboard, and he responded by sending the tweet you see above. “We let you win. Underestimate me at your peril.” We let you win. Think about that for a second. He thinks he’s talking about me. But he’s really talking everyone who worked an early voting shift; every teacher who read and shared my...

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