The Stigmatized 5, part 3: A question of public leadership

I reported last week about the five traditional zoned middle schools that feed Winter Haven High School. Four of them face closure by the state. The fifth, McLaughlin in Lake Wales, just received an “F” on the corrupt state grading list.  Collectively, I reported, those five schools have burned through 18 principals in the four years of the Berryman/LeRoy/Byrd era.

I can only imagine the teacher turnover. A former Lake Alfred Addair teacher told me that one of those four years the district re-assigned a double digit number of Addair teachers as part of a “turnaround” plan. And of course, it replaced them with no one. So that “turnaround” year started with a whole bunch of subs. Such is the logic of our corrupt and destructive state Department of Education — and the mind-numbing incompetence with which our district acts in response.

Now it’s happening again. A teacher from Westwood Middle posted this on Facebook Saturday night.

Today I received a form letter from Polk County Schools Human Resources in the mail. Letter is dated Aug 1st, but envelope is post stamped on Aug. 4th. I’m being involuntarily reassigned from Westwood Middle to Winter Haven High. I had received the same info in an email on Wed afternoon. I’ve been a part of the Westwood family for my entire career. I have worked for 13 years with the strongest and finest teachers to make our school and our students the very best we can be. To be callously and impersonally reassigned without a written reason or even a personal phone call, especially after earning a highly effective rating last year, breaks my heart.

I will go to Winter Haven High and be the best darn teacher I can be. I’ll love my new kids and fight for them. But I want my Westwood people to know that I am not leaving you by choice, and you will be amazing and wonderful.

A key irony of this plays into my idea for organizing around high school ecosystems: the district is taking this teacher away from Westwood kids now and putting her in Winter Haven High, where she’ll likely teach them again in a couple of years. So what is the point of this move? Has this teacher been replaced with another teacher? Or will this 13-year veteran, who loved and wanted to serve Westwood kids, who was “highly effective” two years ago, get replaced by a temp from Kelly Services?

Scuttlebutt has it that the district is offering $10,000 to some category of teacher to come to these schools. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if anyone has taken the bait.

Who is in charge? Who has personal responsibility?

Why do you and I have to rely on scuttlebutt about these schools or the district’s plans for them? Because our district leadership — from the superintendent to the School Board — does not believe in or prioritize public leadership and transparency.

I am trying to imagine a comparable crisis for any other Polk institution. What is the equivalent of closing five schools and displacing 4,000 children for the Sheriff’s Office or Polk State College or the Citrus Connection? Can you imagine Grady Judd or Eileen Holden or Tom Phillips hiding from the public and handing down quiet panicky edicts to employees? No. They would stand up in front of cameras and the public, engage community stakeholders, and lead.

When violence spiked in northwest Lakeland a few years back, LPD Chief Larry Giddens publicly engaged the neighborhood, the media, and anyone he and LPD could think of to address it and get it under control. LPD and the neighborhoods that were suffering worked together relentlessly. And they made incredibly positive change. Some of this occurred while LPD was still under withering criticism. Chief Giddens’ public leadership helped turn everything around.

So why has Jackie Byrd not held public meetings with the parents and communities of these schools? Why is there no op/ed in The Ledger laying out a meticulous vision for these schools? Why are changes done “to” the people of these schools, not “with” the people of these schools? Indeed, here’s a simple question that I bet no one who doesn’t work in the School District can answer.

Who is in charge of the schools threatened with closure? Which highly-paid administrator is responsible for them as a group — and thus accountable to the kids who attend them and taxpayers who fund them?

It’s another Jacksonville mercenary named Tony Bellamy.

He is the “regional superintendent” for “school improvement” across the county. To my knowledge, the 18 principals in four years happened primarily on his watch. I have heard nothing but complaints about him since I started focusing closely on the LeRoy administration months and months ago. Among the Jacksonville mercenaries, he is singled out for his ineffectiveness and cruelty. Over and over again, I have heard him described as an autocrat who rarely sets foot in a school and enjoys theatrically punishing people. Before I ever considered running, I counseled several high-ranking district officials to remove him. I was, of course, ignored.

Why does Bellamy still collect a big paycheck from my money and yours? Because district leadership is extremely skilled at pushing accountability downward. From Tony Bellamy to Hunt Berryman, they do not believe in accountability for themselves. A member of the public wouldn’t even know Bellamy is in charge without making a public records request for this document.

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If I have my way, these five “regional superintendent” positions will be repurposed as leaders of high school learning communities. But Tony Bellamy will not be one of them. [Clarification here: With the exception of Bellamy, I am not criticizing the people who hold these positions. I am talking about the positions themselves. I would think the people who hold these positions would be the leading candidates for high school community leadership positions. I think the “regional superintendent” position is not well designed currently.]

Hunt Berryman actively supports passiveness

My incumbent opponent believes the entire analysis I’ve just shared with you is none of the School Board’s business. Really. Mr. Berryman believes it’s up to School Board members to hire the superintendent and School Board attorney, mumble about some general policies, and then get out of the way.

He believes it’s wrong for me to say that I have no confidence in the job performance of testing director Heather Wright or Tony Bellamy. Really.

If you don’t believe me, I urge you to attend tonight’s League of Women Voters Forum in Bartow or watch it on TV. You will hear Mr. Berryman actively defend passiveness as a Board virtue. He will talk openly about all the aspects of School District oversight that are not his job.

It’s why he didn’t say anything to his fellow board members or the public about the destructive relationship between Kathryn LeRoy and Greg Rivers. It’s why every traditional middle school in the Winter Haven area can consume new principals year-after-year in virtual Board silence.

Mr. Berryman is a nice, accomplished man. But he and I have profound disagreement on the nature and obligations of public leadership. One need only look at the state of the district — and its trajectory during his four years — to see that his philosophy of passiveness doesn’t work.

Let’s see what active leadership can do.

Read part 1 of this series here.

Read part 2 of this series here.

14 thoughts on “The Stigmatized 5, part 3: A question of public leadership

  1. Billy, could you please make screen-shot document illustrations like the one embedded in this article link to an expanded version? Thanks!

  2. I am so HAPPY SOMEONE HAS FINALLY, FINALLY called out Tony Bellamy for what he is!! I have no clue how he has flown under the radar for so long. Of the Jackson 5/4/how many are left he is #1 that needs to go. I have never in my professional career met someone so arrogant, rude, condescending and just down right the epitome of all that is wrong with education. He can take his music certification and haul right on back to Jacksonville. This piece is so disturbing, I am mortified to read teachers are being treated inhumane and displaced with such lack of respect. This makes Jackie Byrd’s welcome back message make me want to vomit. SHAME!!!

  3. Here’s the statutory “Powers and duties of district school board,” which is an interesting read. Of course, most are subject to some interpretation. For as long as I worked for the Polk Schools, I often heard how they left personnel decisions up to the Superintendent. The first item below seems to imply they should be more involved. In fact, the School Board’s own practice of formally approving the Superintendent’s recommendations for personnel actions seems to confirm they know they are ultimately responsible, even if it is a nominal duty in practice. Among the requirements:

    “Designate positions to be filled, prescribe qualifications for those positions, and provide for the appointment, compensation, promotion, suspension, and dismissal of employees…”

    “Adopt procedures whereby the general public can be adequately informed of the educational programs, needs, and objectives of public education within the district…”

    “Visit the schools, observe the management and instruction, give suggestions for improvement, and advise citizens with the view of promoting interest in education and improving the school.”

  4. Here’s a great question to ask the school board: How many other veteran, professional teachers were reassigned at the last minute because the state demanded VAM-based changes at schools? What is the research-based evidence that this will actually help our needest students?

  5. It is my understanding, aside from Bellamy, all the other regionals have school principal experience in Lakeland only. Digging deeper, the district administrators from senior director and higher (excluding the folks hired outside Polk County) almost all served the Lakeland-area prior to working at district. Perhaps the district needs to look at geographical diversity when appointing key positions. Are there not qualified school personnel that live and work outside of Lakeland available, which have a vested connection to those geographical areas? The mentality of “Lakeland knows best” is what started the original revolt from the “good ole boys” syndrome that landed us in the LeRoy situation.

  6. I would start by a public request of the applicant packets for the last two filled regional positions. See who all applied and if there were any additional qualified applicants. I heard there were three other qualified applicants with experience in the Winter Haven/ east side of Polk County that had submitted applications, but were not appointed.

  7. Wondering if Bellamy had to sign a M.O.U. similar to the one all teachers at the 5 schools received. They had 24 hours to sign or get displaced. There are dozens of vacancies still. Welcome back!

  8. Teachers with high VAM scores were sent an email from HR offering them $7,500 to commit two years to one of the turnaround schools. They would receive an extra planning period per day but also work an eight hour day. I know of one teacher who received this email and I personally saw it. There was a meeting on Monday at the district for interested teachers. I would love to know how many went.

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