Update: Senator Stargel posted a Facebook comment in response to this post. I’m republishing it here:
“I hate to add to this post because I don’t want to start an extended conversation on Facebook, that at this busy time of session, I don’t have time to complete but…. Billy, I believe we had a free and open conversation. There is no need to fear. You were given more time to speak at our meeting than your fellow school board members. I know that we disagree on many things but I have never been hostile or closed minded to differing opinions and I don’t plan to start now. I still have an open door policy to productive and civil discussion, especially when it relates to our school children. I look forward to working with you and the rest of our school board as we move forward addressing the challenges of educating the children in our county, whether those challenges are large or small. I don’t know where you got the impression that I would stoop to retaliation at the expense of our children, but that is untrue.”
I responded like this:
“I appreciate the note. And the reassurance. And we can have productive discussions at any time. My phone number is 8632094037. You can start the discussion by publicly reflecting on the lives of the 4,000 families that were disrupted by your VAM equation. That’s what I asked you to do in the meeting. But you showed no interest in considering the impact of your public policy on their lives. If you’re interested in that now, I find that encouraging. I’m eager discuss it with you. Thanks.”
State Sen. Kelli Stargel is utterly and completely unrepentant about VAM — and its effects on kids and teachers. She knows the state of Florida used her statistical laughingstock of an equation to subject 4,000 Polk County middle school families to at least 2,617 days of teacher vacancies through February at our five state-stigmatized middle schools.
She doesn’t care. She made that clear last week when I confronted her face-to-face about it in her Tallahassee office.
This is the same politician who put out campaign mailers in 2016 attacking education “bureaucrats” and gushing about “our hard-working and exceptional teachers.” That material was as fraudulent as her VAM.
I think it’s important for all of you, as Polk County (and Lake County) voters, to have this knowledge. That’s why I’m writing this, despite some consternation from folks at the district who fear that Stargel will try to punish our kids and teachers further if we critique her performance.
So, just to be clear: this is Billy Townsend writing this. I’m not speaking on behalf of the School Board as a whole or the District as an entity. If anybody wants to try to punish somebody over this critique, line up a candidate and come at me in 2020. I’d welcome that campaign.
It will always be Kelli Stargel’s VAM
Here’s a quick refresher on how it’s been used: late last summer, the state Board of Education seized control of five Polk middle schools. The BoE used Kelli Stargel’s VAM equation, this monstrosity…
..to forcibly transfer dozens of teachers just after the school year started. Neither the Board of Education nor the Polk District had any plan for replacing these certified teachers. After all, there’s a massive teacher shortage. The Polk District did not have the people to replace the people forced to move. So the kids at Boone, Kathleen Middle, Lake Alfred Addair, Westwood, and Dension got a patchwork of subs and administrator fill-ins.
I raised hell about this atrocity as a candidate for School Board. And I’m not going to let it go now. Or ever. Until she atones, I intend to hang VAM around Kelli Stargel’s political shoulders like a bright shawl for the rest of her career in whatever way I can.
There is no “we” with Kelli Stargel
That brings us back to last week’s School Board visit to Tallahassee.
I asked Kelli Stargel about the VAM transfers to her face in her office. She responded as coldly and indifferently as one can possibly imagine. She said: “You” should have had high-scoring VAM teachers ready to fill-in at the the dozens of spots created by her state government after the school year started. That’s mostly a paraphrase. But “you” is a quote.
You. You, you, you. I think she was referring to the School District with that pronoun. But she may well have meant the community as a whole. Her community. That’s your problem, she said. Not hers. Even when she created it.
If some monstrous equation I made into policy created the human harm of Stargel’s VAM, I would make it my mission in life to repent and fix it. But Stargel made it abundantly clear that the life and school experiences of those 4,000 kids amounts to \_(ツ)_/¯.
At that point, Stargel and I had a frank and open exchange of views. The meeting may or may not have ended with me saying, “Advocate for the kids in your district for once. Once.”
Indeed, Stargel has a long record of sticking it to her own community from a position of distant, unaccountable petty power. See her near sabotage of the FHSAA basketball tournament in Lakeland and past record of hampering Polk State College’s efforts to serve more people. That’s in addition to years of awful anti-teacher, traditional school sabotage in general education policy. That’s just the stuff I know about.
This is the key thing to understand. There is no “we” with Kelli Stargel. There is no collaboration around the human well-being of our community. She looks at “us” as “you.”
In praise of Colleen Burton and Tom Lee
The Stargel meeting proved a vivid outlier in our delegation rounds. Every other meeting produced a very cordial and productive sense of “we.” I felt pretty good about all of them.
I was particularly pleased with Colleen Burton. She had visited Kathleen Middle and had good, constructive things to say. She opened the meeting with a plan for meaningful post-session engagement with the Board and District. That’s all one can really ask. And I thanked her for her good faith. I look forward to exploring it in greater depth.
We didn’t get a chance to meet with Senator Tom Lee. But he sat through the meeting our School Board had with our delegation a few months ago. He listened intently to the stuff I said and others said. And he’s out there now fighting publicly to ward off the efforts of Jeb Bush’s pernicious foundation to water down pro-child and pro-teacher changes that the Florida Senate is pursuing to the Florida model. One of the major proposed changes is eliminating VAM or making it optional. Lee is helping. And the optional VAM amendment made it onto the good Senate bill yesterday (Monday).
Senator Lee is part of our delegation. Send him a note of thanks. I plan to do that today in addition to writing this. You can do it here. https://www.flsenate.gov/Senators/s20
Speaking of VAM, we also had a very good meeting with Sen. David Simmons from the the Orlando area. He is shepherding the good senate reforms. (The competing bills get a little complicated. Lots of useful accounts in the media and elsewhere if you want a full rundown. It’s completely unclear where all of this will go. The House bills are straight up, child-hating horror shows.)
Simmons is a really smart guy. He’s a Vanderbilt Law School grad, who was a math major at Tennessee Technical College. I believe he graduated first in his class. I tell you this only to underscore the pricelessness of the look on his face when we briefly discussed the incomprehensibility of VAM. Let’s just say he and I are on the same page.
You should send Simmons a note of thanks, too. https://www.flsenate.gov/Senators/s9
Ultimately, the reforms in the Senate won’t bring the kind of fundamental, humane rethink of the fraudulent Florida model that we need. That will take a governor running on it. But the Senate could bring some immediate relief. And the debate is setting the long-term narrative. We’re winning the arguments. Now we just have to get the power to enforce our victories.
Of confrontation and blackmail
And that’s why it’s important for me to explain to you Kelli Stargel’s destructive role in all of this.
State legislators live almost completely immune from broad public pressure. They rarely feel public consequences for policy atrocities like Stargell’s VAM. The relative obscurity — in the mind of the public — of the offices legislators hold insulates them from the type of criticism local officials receive. People at home feel what legislators do only through local government’s obligation to execute laws. And then they tend to vote by party because that’s the easiest thing to understand.
That’s why legislators are much much more responsive to organized and powerful economic and social interests. That’s who can hurt them. They are much more responsive to the needs of a Senate president from some other county than to their community because their communities show little ability to hurt them. The Senate president or House speaker can hurt individual lawmakers. Traditionally, you and I can’t. That’s kind of the bottom line.
When I write and say things like this, I can make even people who share my basic views and mission quite uncomfortable. At our Florida School Board Association meeting, various folks cautioned me — and others — about how to engage legislators and/or Stargel specifically. We even had a really productive discussion about the meaning of the word “confrontation.” I tried out a tone on the moderator. Really. She approved of it.
The fear is that if we’re too direct or open in our critiques, our legislators won’t meet with us anymore; or they won’t act on the minor and uncontroversial things they help us with now; or maybe they’ll find some way to actively punish the local government organization they mandate to serve all 100,000 kids in Polk County.
I get that fear. We live in a cynical, nasty world, where we are subject to the power of politicians like Kelli Stargel. Flattery has its place. I love to use it when it’s justified by actions.
But as a public official myself, I can’t allow some other public official to blackmail me into silence because he or she might not do his or her job. I will not submit the 140,000 people for voted for me to that kind of blackmail. I won’t dishonor and forget the kids and adults that Kelli Stargell’s VAM hurt by pretending our school district has a productive relationship with her.
So if Kelli Stargel succeeds in further harming her own community, let’s resolve for everybody to blame me. Don’t blame those who tried to navigate her quietly.
And then maybe think about the morality of those two sentences. It’s the same morality that abandons 4,000 families and goes \_(ツ)_/¯.