The Looney complaint dismissal: an ethical vindication of public oversight

The Looney complaint dismissal: an ethical vindication of public oversight

There’s a very funny line in the Florida Commission on Ethics’ dismissal of Laquita Looney’s complaint against me. You can see it above. It’s point number two. The Respondent, Billy Townsend, allegedly serves as a member of the School Board of Polk County. I literally laughed out loud when I read that. Who knew the Ethics Commission has a sense of humor? However, as I thought for a second, it occurred to me that the comical “allegedly” comes with a rather profound and vindicating deeper meeting. The “allegedly” means that the Ethics Commission did absolutely no investigative work. To not even verify that I am an elected School Board member makes that clear. This does not mean the Commission is lazy. It means the Commission read Laquita Looney’s complaint as if everything she “alleged” was true and threw it out on its own terms. Indeed, the Commission actually says this explicitly: “No factual investigation preceded the review, and therefore the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the allegations of the complaint.”  Referring to me as “allegedly” a School Board member underscores what “no factual investigation” really means. I never even had to mount a defense — because nothing Looney alleged is remotely an ethical violation. I think other board members both in Polk and across the state should take heed of this. Ethical vindication There are a few open lies in Looney’s complaint. I’ll document one in just a second, just for posterity. But, in total, the complaint essentially accused me of speaking critically in public about: Looney’s behavior — and that of her husband — as employees of the school system. How the institution I’m elected to help oversee has addressed that behavior. To which I answer: yes, I did that. And don’t expect me to stop identifying and publicly commenting on important institutional issues. Indeed, I consider it my ethical obligation to understand and communicate publicly — if necessary — the institutional problems the Polk School District needs to address. There are a few people who think we elected board members should not do this; that there is something unfair or outside the School Board’s role to comment on the work environment or personnel policies and performance of the School District staff. Well, Laquita Looney just tested that position with the Florida Commission on Ethics. And the Commission on Ethics dismissed her point-of-view out of hand, without investigating...

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20 for 20 in local tax referenda: public education is much more popular than Richard Corcoran. Don’t fear him; use him.

20 for 20 in local tax referenda: public education is much more popular than Richard Corcoran. Don’t fear him; use him.

Here’s a wild election stat. My dear friend and newly elected Polk County School Board Member Sarah Fortney — a long-time teacher and forceful advocate for the people who do the work in public education — won 120,176 votes in November. Her opponent, of whom I also think highly, won 77,519 votes. Now, let’s the look at the most votes Richard Corcoran has ever won in an election. Did you see that? 9,676. Sarah Fortney’s 2018 margin of victory was almost 600 percent larger than the total number of votes Richard Corcoran received in his best ever electoral performance. The man Sarah beat got almost 800 percent more votes than Corcoran’s best ever performance. And yet, for two years, Corcoran has sought to wield dictatorial control of the state’s most important institutions. And the sheep that surround him have let him. They allow him to dictate to and punish the exponentially more people represented by local elected officials everywhere. In that undemocratic dictation, Corcoran is just a particularly nasty manifestation of the fundamental disconnect between governing and the will of the people in Florida. It has been this way for a long time. At this point, Tallahassee is essentially a House of Lords, but with great power. This is a deep, profound flaw in the representative structure of state and local government. It is terrible for the very idea of representative democracy — or even republicanism. It’s a recipe for endless casual corruption and cynicism. But that’s not what I’m dwelling on today. 24-for-24 versus 0-for-everything Today, I want to point out the depth of Richard Corcoran’s failure to build popular support for his destructive education program. I want to point how every time that program — itself — faced voters Corcoran lost and public education won. Every time voters were given the clear option to support egalitarian public education as a public good — or to support educators as vital human infrastructure — they did so. Take a look. Local communities in Florida — including Polk — went 24 for 24 in 2018 in approving referenda that asked for taxation (20 for 20) or governance model restructuring (4 for 4) in support of local public education. 24 for 24. Let me say that again: 20 for 20 in taxation votes for public education.  That is the least examined — and most potentially explosive — political outcome of the election...

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Please watch the Mike Dunn shooting video, Sheriff Gualtieri: the unbalanced risk equation of arming teachers; rapid response community police; and the lethal fecklessness of Tallahassee

Please watch the Mike Dunn shooting video, Sheriff Gualtieri: the unbalanced risk equation of arming teachers; rapid response community police; and the lethal fecklessness of Tallahassee

Arming teachers and staff to address nihilistic mass school shootings returned to the news recently. (I’ll address that in a moment.) I expect it to become an issue again during the Legislative session to come, especially when the Stoneman Douglas High report is released. With that in mind, I want you to take a look at a video, which many people in Polk County and Florida have already seen. Let me warn you: this video is graphic and disturbing. It shows a man of official power, status, and community respect shoot another man dead because of misbehavior and refusal to comply within a confined space. Like a teacher or staff member, the shooter has authority over the confined space. In this case, he owns the space. This underlying scenario of misbehavior, non-compliance, and confrontation happens every day in every school district everywhere in America — and certainly in Florida. Thus, this video makes a viscerally obvious argument for NOT arming teachers and staff in our schools. If and when we discuss arming teachers again at a future School Board meeting, I will play this video for the crowd. When protection becomes discipline If you multiply Florida’s roughly 4,000 schools by 180 schools days by 20 years, you get 14.4 million days of school in which no mass shooter has attacked a Florida school in the last two decades. That is, of course, powerfully and horribly offset by the one day on which it did happen at Stoneman Douglas High last February. Neither math nor rationality provides any balm for human grief. And let’s be clear: it could happen again tomorrow at a school right here in Polk, even though it probably won’t. Everyone looks through a glass darkly in trying to address with state power the challenge that nihilistic shootings pose. We should be humble about that; but we typically aren’t. If it does happen, personal blame or my political career won’t matter to me. Both will pale in comparison to mass death if Polk loses the school shooter lottery. So I might as well try to think clearly and systemically about protection ahead of time — and let recrimination do what it does in response. Clear thinking reveals that the underlying dynamic of the video above — misbehavior defying authority in a confined space — has happened millions and millions of times in Florida classrooms in the last 20 years. Not...

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Elections have consequences, part 2: generational School Board change, a spectacular Sales Tax result, and the vindication of public engagement

Elections have consequences, part 2: generational School Board change, a spectacular Sales Tax result, and the vindication of public engagement

Take a moment to consider the fascinating and encouraging historical juxtaposition of Polk County’s two school construction and maintenance half-cent sales tax votes. Here are the key paragraphs from The Ledger’s 2003 story about the original election to create it. Note the numbers in bold. The final tally from Tuesday’s low-turnout election was 22,336 votes, or 59 percent, to approve the tax and 15,714, or 41 percent, opposing the tax. The turnout was 13.9 percent of the county’s 273,789 registered voters. Only a May special election in 1989, also on a school issue, had a lower countywide turnout — 13 percent. That’s a total of 38,040 votes cast in the 2003 special election. Now, take a look at the results from 2018’s vote, which was forced, legally, to occur as part of a general election. And this general election happened to become one of the highest turnout, non-presidential races ever.  It’s a general political rule-of-thumb that special elections are easier to win than general elections for tax referenda. I’m not sure I agree with that conventional wisdom in any case. But in this case, it’s clearly wrong.  Click to enlarge. To summarize: 230,968 votes cast in 2018, to 38,040 cast in 2003. That’s a more than 600 percent increase in votes cast. And the percentage margin of success grew, significantly. 68 percent to 59 percent. Nine percentage points is an impressive jump. An unofficial assessment of other school tax referenda shows that ours sales-tax renewal enjoyed the widest approval margin of any in the state. Board Member Lynn Wilson and PAC leaders like Ashley Troutman and Alice Hunt deserve great credit and thanks for their work and support. And, of course, the people who work in our district, under the leadership of Superintendent Byrd, created the environment that made this result possible. They all have my thanks. Constructive, public self-criticism and broad public support thrive together But I must confess that this result is particularly gratifying to me, personally and professionally. In the last two years, I’ve practiced a much more assertive and public oversight approach than my colleagues or predecessors. I don’t think there is much debate about that. And there was a brief period of time when some concerns bubbled up to me that talking so publicly and directly about problems I saw with the district and board would jeopardize the Sales Tax vote. I hinted at that...

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Elections have consequences, part 1: The “80 percent” gimmick, the superintendent’s salary, and the cost of Kelli Stargel’s state mandates

Elections have consequences, part 1: The “80 percent” gimmick, the superintendent’s salary, and the cost of Kelli Stargel’s state mandates

For the first time since I was elected in 2016, I’m going to have to miss a regular School Board meeting on Tuesday. I have an out-of-town work commitment that goes into the evening. The most consequential vote I will miss likely relates to any potential pay increase for the superintendent. We pay her $230K per year. That’s pretty comparable to surrounding districts, when you control for size and relative funding of the districts. So I wanted to explain, here, why I can’t support any increase for her. My thinking relates directly to the outcome of the recent election. The education compliance costs imposed by state government are huge First, as you read this piece, it’s important to remember a basic fact about education in Florida. I’ve said it 8,000 times. And I’ll say it 8,000 times more: Florida has a state-run school system. As a governing entity, your local School Board is more like the Health Department, structurally, than the County Commission. Thus, virtually all administrative costs in Polk County (and most Florida districts) aren’t voluntary administrative costs at all. They are mandatory COMPLIANCE COSTS imposed from Tallahassee by Kelli Stargel and friends. It costs money and effort to COMPLY with the state’s fraudulent accountability system; the sham of class size rules; and whatever other nonsense they rain down upon us. Indeed, you can think of all of these compliance costs as the marketing budget for the for-profit charter companies that supported Kay Fields’ re-election. Without fraudulent school grades and VAM etc., it would be much harder to discredit kids and teachers in traditional schools and market various “choice” options — particularly the ones that put money in people’s pockets. These local compliance costs are a vital, indispensable part of the dead Florida Model of education that dates to Jeb Bush’s first election in 1998. Florida education leaders love local district compliance costs. They depend on them. Nothing about the election has changed any of this. A serious approach to “80 percent” in the classroom will gut DoE, the “Department of Excess” And that makes for a fascinating collision with probably the highest profile measure in Ron DeSantis’ education “plan” — which is really just a bunch of worn out talking points. DeSantis’ “plan” insists that local districts spend 80 percent of budget in the classroom, whatever that means. The definitional accounting headaches of “classroom” will create an...

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Who will serve and who will eat? A culture of public accountability for power can’t begin and end on Election Day

Who will serve and who will eat? A culture of public accountability for power can’t begin and end on Election Day

Check out Leonard Cohen’s poem/song “Democracy.” It should be a mandatory listening on Election Day. It’s a spectacular burst of clear-eyed American patriotism and humanity from one of our greatest creative Americans — and a great American Jew. Sadly, that comes with renewed and deadly relevance these days. I love the entire song, but especially the passage below. It contains the best, most concise definition of politics that I have ever heard — contextualized within the holiness, grace, sorrow, and furtive human confrontation that define politics emotionally. It’s coming from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where the races meet From the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat. From the wells of disappointment where the women kneel to pray for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. I wish we could rename “politics” as “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.” That’s what it is. Those are the stakes. Always. It’s the distribution of power — the state-sanctioned capacity to help or harm — by democratic or other means. Politics cares about you — whether or not you care about it I hear people sometimes say, “I don’t care about politics.” And that’s fine. Your choice. But I assure you that politics does not feel the same way. It cares about you. It will find you; and it will determine, in large degree, your relative share of eating and serving. Power is always working on us. It never, ever stops. The ballot box is only one tiny part of it. But it’s the only part where we share power, as individuals, on roughly equal terms. But power resents even that. And equality of voting feels the endless gravity of power pulling on it. I’m a politician and a public person for whom the homicidal bitchin’ has worked pretty well over the last 400 years. I am not ashamed of my many inheritances. But I think they do impose an obligation on me, as a politician and public person: make the homicidal bitchin’ a little less homicidal. Equalize, to reasonable extent, the burdens of serving and the joys of eating. I don’t believe I can do that effectively without pointing out who is eating...

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