The unenforceable, anti-public, anti-employee School Board communication policy illustrates a cultural problem. It’s already largely ignored. It will be changed.

The unenforceable, anti-public, anti-employee School Board communication policy illustrates a cultural problem. It’s already largely ignored. It will be changed.

Late last week, Polk School District leadership sent out an email to all staff describing the strict official terms on which employees of our School District may communicate with their elected board members. The email summarizes a School Board policy created in 2013. I did not create or vote for that policy. As you’ll see, the email summary actually misrepresents the specific policy, which includes the caveats “preferred” and “should.” Here’s a screen shot. The summary email, which I’m publishing below, wipes out the caveats included in the real policy language. The actual policy was unanimously adopted on November 12, 2013.  Current board members Kay Fields, Tim Harris, Hazel Sellers, and Lori Cunningham — the four long-term incumbents — all voted for it. If I were them, I’d be pretty annoyed with the absence of “should” and “preferred” in that districtwide policy summary. But even with the caveats, consider what they did: your elected officials, to whom you pay more than $40,ooo per year and offer health insurance, acted to set pretty hard limits on how their constituents can address them, presumably under pain of organizational punishment. I reject those limits. Lisa Miller can certainly speak for herself as a newly elected board member. But I wager that she and at least two other remaining board candidates reject those limits, too. That difference in attitude toward all constituents is a big part of what’s on the ballot in November. The current board attitude acts as a drag on the real organizational progress we are making on a number of fronts. It limits us and slows us down. This policy will change if I have anything to say about it Thankfully, this absurd policy is already broadly ignored, even by the board members who voted for it, I suspect. I’m pretty sure they’re not actually saying, “No, I prefer not talk to you” if it’s someone they want to talk to. But openly flouted, unenforceable policies and laws are bad policies and laws. So after the election, my first request to whomever sits on the new School Board will be to repeal this policy and replace it with something reasonable and reflective of our roles as your elected representatives. [I may actually do that sooner. I’ll even write a suggested replacement policy in the next few days. Because I am constructive.] No good employer fears what its employees or stakeholders have to say. Confident...

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Why I support the PEA and AFSCME deals: a big step on the long, hard road to making us a better employer

Why I support the PEA and AFSCME deals: a big step on the long, hard road to making us a better employer

As labor talks unfolded over the last few months, I knew three basic things. 1) Years of School Board and district leadership inattention, which predate and ended with my election, left a $15 million hole in the District’s self-funded insurance plan. 2) Bus driver and teacher shortages loomed over everything. 3) I was very pleased this year with the constructive collaboration between management and labor in working through these problems. Fixing insurance now is an emergency, which means costs have to rise for everybody — employees, School Board, and taxpayers. The changes are particularly painful for spouses and children of employees. But the alternative to fixing it now is insolvency — the collapse of the plan. And that’s not an alternative. Given those stakes, we probably should have pursued a full-throttle, repetitive public campaign to prepare people for the unpleasant insurance changes. But we are not yet a district whose leadership is comfortable talking openly to the public and stakeholders about tough, painful challenges. As the bargain played out, I actually talked about insurance quite a bit — in meetings, quotes for various media stories, and in many individual conversations with the people of our district. In fact, no stakeholder hid the fact that we had giant insurance problems to face. The School Board and staff addressed it quite openly. Our Finance leaders spoke to at least one union meeting to warn attendees of the difficulties ahead. But I still knew, as the summer unfolded, that a passive observer of School Board policy might not know what to expect from even a good, productive collective bargaining deal, which I think this is. I intended to write an article preparing as many people for this as I could. But I got very busy writing about other personnel and cultural issues that I consider hugely important. And negotiations moved very fast. So I didn’t write the insurance piece I intended before the deal came out. I did not do enough, soon enough, to manage expectations. For that, I apologize. The difference between labor relations and employee relations When the district staff announced the deal last week, they did so with a sense of accomplishment. And compared with past negotiations, this negotiation does truly stand out for its collaboration, speed, and sense of common purpose. It’s a big step forward in labor relations, which is important, and which I’ll discuss in a moment. But that...

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The first referendum on Florida’s hateful model, part 2: What would Sheriff Judd do?

The first referendum on Florida’s hateful model, part 2: What would Sheriff Judd do?

Run a thought experiment with me. Imagine that Sen. Kelli Stargel, Gov. Rick Scott, and the rest of your Florida state government forced your Polk County Commission to withhold $160 million* from Sheriff Grady Judd’s budget for protecting Polk residents since 2014. $48 million in the current year alone. Imagine the County Commission had no ability to vote on it. It was simply dictated by Stargel and Scott and the rest. Then imagine that Stargel evaluated Judd’s deputies from Tallahassee and hung a performance score on them using this formula: Now imagine Stargel and Scott ordered Sheriff Judd to pay and deploy his deputies based on that equation. And then after all of that, imagine Stargel gave the Sheriff’s Office a “grade” based on whether murders went up or down in any given year and a hundred other variables thrown together in a formula so incoherent it takes 40 pages to explain it. And now imagine she regularly insulted the sheriff and his deputies, for good measure. What do you think Grady Judd would do if that was his reality? I have a hypothesis. It involves a lot of press conferences and cameras and colorful Gradyisms. If he gave me a call, I’d stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him and nod like a lapdog. *[Billy note] The number on my picture says $128 million because I can’t figure out how to edit the picture with my limited technology at hand. That’s embarrassing, I know. Our district finance people recently rechecked my estimate and found the correct number to be $160 million over five years. The graveyard dead truth As a Polk County School Board member trying to bring sweeping change and renewed support to public education, the thought experiment above IS my reality. I am not exaggerating. I am not exaggerating. I’m telling you the graveyard dead truth. Stargel and Scott and your state government have prevented our teachers and staff from benefitting from any rising property values in Polk County by imposing the rollback rate on local school property taxes since 2014-15. If I had the power, I would return us to the 2014-15 millage rate. I never would have dropped it. But local board members don’t have that power. Tallahassee keeps it for itself; and it has continually acted to make public education stakeholder lives harder. That’s just a fact. And what does this mean for the people of public education? If...

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Our first referendum on the hateful Florida model, part 1: Stargel and Stewart are the Florida educational establishment

Our first referendum on the hateful Florida model, part 1: Stargel and Stewart are the Florida educational establishment

When I search for a single word to define Florida’s education system since 1998, I keep coming back to “hateful.” Everything about it is built around hatred of its core stakeholders. Its policies are designed to hurt the people of traditional zoned schools and force them to choose “choice” schools of some kind, whether they be charter, voucher, magnet, or whatever. It’s designed to use the compulsory education requirement to discredit the idea of public education — and enable new businesses. It’s designed to chase people out of the teaching profession by pushing them out of the middle class and making their work experience miserable. Maybe the people imposing this model think they will replace them with cheap computers for the masses, who don’t need health insurance. But mostly, I think it’s enough for them to see public education as a welfare program they should destroy. What comes next? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Not their problem. Despite that cruel, mindless generational policy approach from Tallahassee and Washington, our teachers and stakeholders on the ground have held public education together. They have continued to create meaningful experiences for our kids and rallying points for our communities. They’ve done it for my children; and I am grateful to them. They have suffered to do it; and sadly, as political stakeholders and voters, we have not had their backs for a generation. We’ve let them suffer, largely in silence. The first referendum That’s why I don’t see Gillum vs. DeSantis as some lame referendum on Bernie vs. Trump. I see it, instead, as the first, imperfect referendum on the Florida Model and the entire idea of test-punish-hate-fake compete-cheat education. There will be many more. We champions of humane, meaningful education are ascendant. And we’re not backing up. The turgid educational establishment of a generation in Florida and America is losing the battle for ideas — because they have none. They only have fake data, subsidized think tank magazines, and vanity. They offer only pain and lies. That’s why they were so desperate to sneak Amendment 8 on the ballot. It was a rear guard action to protect their dying grift. This first referendum in Florida is not as clear as I would like because Democrats, for some strange reason, still lack the will to simply say: “End test-and-punish education.” They lack the will to talk and explain the way I do to truly mobilize what should...

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The importance of questions: Why K12 matters to becoming a better employer and steward of public trust

The importance of questions: Why K12 matters to becoming a better employer and steward of public trust

If you can, take a moment to watch this video from the June 19th Polk County School Board work session, starting at about 2:57:30. That’s the moment I asked my fellow board members to join me in asking the State Attorney’s Office to review the K12 matter. None of them opted to join my request. Lynn Wilson wasn’t at the meeting. I particularly want you to note Sarabeth Reynolds’ comments starting at about 3:25:30, which don’t just relate to K12. If you don’t have time to watch, she’s expressing concerns about the burdens she believes School Board questions place on staff. This is clearly a reference to me, although I don’t think she actually mentions me by name at any point. I think it’s safe to say that Sarabeth and I both won election in 2016 as part of a movement that wanted real change in the oversight approach of the Polk School Board.  I think it’s also safe to say that since our election, we’ve chosen divergent paths in our approach to governing. That divergence culminated on June 19. Put a pin in Sarabeth’s comments on June 19. We’re going to come back to them. They are fundamental to understanding the current philosophical/governing divide among your elected School Board members. In my view, this divide relates to organizational self-criticism. It relates to the imperative to never stop striving to become a better employer and steward of public trust, while recognizing that we will fail from time-to-time. If we’re going to make real, permanent progress with bus driver/teacher shortages and employee quality of life concerns, the leadership of this institution must become more self-critical, more transparent, and far more willing to listen to its own stakeholders. That’s how we will become a better employer and better steward of public trust. I’ve tried to drive that ethic of continuous organizational improvement and leadership accountability as a board member. And I think we’ve seen some progress, even if it’s begrudging at times. I’m hopeful that any new board members will join in the pushing. A very helpful investigation and review As it turns out, the State Attorney’s review of the K12 matter proved every bit as valuable and helpful as I hoped it would. I am very, very glad I asked for it. First, it confirmed that no money changed hands on what would have been an illegal $1.8 million contract. Having established...

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A moment for regeneration, part 4: the Polk community’s sales tax is vital to the Polk community’s future

A moment for regeneration, part 4: the Polk community’s sales tax is vital to the Polk community’s future

It is vital to the future of this county that Polk voters decide to continue the half-cent sales tax for facilities construction. Full stop. Let me say it again, with italics: it is vital to the future of this county that Polk voters decide to continue the half-cent sales tax for facilities construction. One can choose from a massive buffet of numbers and reasons to illustrate why it’s vital. I’ll be doing that quite often as the November 6 referendum approaches. But here are a few quick bullets on what $675 million over 15 years means — or could mean: A desperately needed new high school in Northeast Polk, along with other desperately needed capacity. A desperately needed renovation of Mulberry High School Elementary schools that relieve crowding at other elementaries — Chain of Lakes Elementary, for instance. Security upgrades and athletic field renovations. Millions and millions in maintenance projects deferred for years because we didn’t have money to do them. It’s the best way to help us avoid the air conditioning problems that have plagued Hillsborough County. Money to help with capital and facilities for conversion charter schools, like some of the Lake Wales and McKeel schools. [Dale Fair Babson Park Elementary has a need to cover its PE Court, for instance.  I’ve received a ton of hand written notes from kids fearing skin cancer.] And, if I have my way, resources to get creative about reducing busing and segregation — and improving how magnet and traditional schools affect each other. That’s just the tip of the practical iceberg. Continuing to pay the half-cent tax, which has been around since 2003, benefits basically everybody. And today, I simply want to take a moment to make my support as clear as I can. [As I understand it now, board members are allowed to openly advocate as long as we don’t use public money or resources to do it.] An independent Political Action Committee has been set up for individuals and organizations who want to contribute to the campaign of support. You can donate at this link. In an effort to put our money where the keyboard is, the Townsend household just gave $1,000. If you can contribute anything, please do. Everything counts. An answer to a very fair question I also want to thank Hollis Hooks for prompting me. At the quarterly Polk Education Foundation board meeting last week, we had...

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