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 systems
There is a powerful thermodynamics at work in a organization of this scale with that mission. Everything we do in one school and community can affect what happens at a school or community 30 miles away. That’s why my greatest hesitancy in aligning McLaughlin Middle with Lake Wales Charter is the impact on other communities. That’s why some of the loudest concerns about purchasing Bryant Stadium come from people in other parts of the county concerned about perceived inequities. If we move a principal from a North Lakeland school to one in Davenport, we’re affecting at least two communities.
In short, I have to think about all Polk communities all the time. I don’t have the luxury of narrowing my vision to just what’s in front of me or nearby — if I want to do a good job.
This is acutely true in personnel decisions. When board members were notified of principal changes near the end of the school year, we were notified by district. I was told that’s how the board likes to be notified. I find that extremely telling. I only had a couple changes in “my” district. So nothing to worry about, right? Sorry, that’s not how it works — or how it will work with me as long as I’m on the board.
Personnel issues and changes are among the thorniest of issues for an active School Board member. I only supervise four employees. The vast majority of the rest report up to one of those four: the superintendent. Yet, serving 100,000 kids well requires a healthy human organism of 13,000 employees (and we really need more) willing to do hard, hard work for generally substandard pay. I believe I’m responsible for establishing a culture, through policy and comment, that reflects my community’s expectations of leadership and fairness. I’m responsible for the setting conditions that allow that organism to thrive at all levels.
I can’t do that by focusing only on a few square miles in urban Lakeland.
In my seven-plus months on the board, I have not been shy about sharing my observations concerning personnel with Jackie Byrd and others in our leadership team. Nor have I been shy about communicating public opinions communicated to me. I try very hard not to convey a hard position or box in the HR and leadership team by insisting on a particular type of action for or against an employee. But I do try to frame problems so that solutions and actions become clear.
My personnel observations and philosophy
I wasn’t on the inside for last year’s personnel transfer season. So I have no real baseline to use in judging this year’s. Maybe it’s like this every year. If so, we clearly have cultural work to do — because I’m not thrilled with what I’m seeing and hearing.
I wrote about some very serious concerns yesterday. The three I mentioned are the only three in which I’ve intervened. And I did so because they involve allegations of abusive or unethical behavior. I felt it was my duty to intervene.
I’m not intervening directly in a number of other personnel decisions whose circumstances and consequences give me pause. These seem like judgment calls. And I think I have to let my leaders exercise judgement, even when those judgments make me uncomfortable.
But in talking to many people and investigating multiple issues, I’m seeing a few concerning themes.
Life-altering consequences for personality conflicts: Organizations develop factions among staff and personality conflicts between leaders. When that happens, it often makes sense to make changes. What concerns me in Polk is that the losing factions and personalities, which are otherwise quite capable, seem to suffer disproportionate consequences to their careers. We don’t have enough trained leaders and teachers to treat as disposable competent people on the wrong end of internal school or department politics. The district as a whole, as an organism, needs to identify and support conflict losers. Because we can use them in other schools and roles where we have needs.
Don’t know you, so you’re out and demoted: This is a close relative to the first. I support a principal’s right to set his or her own team. But again, the district should take an active role in recognizing what’s happened. Our people put a lot of time and money and effort into advanced degrees and career advancement. “Don’t know you, Mr. AP, so go be a teacher now and take a $15,000 pay cut,” is capricious and damaging to the overall human ecosystem. It discourages development and extra effort. The AP pool and training system as a whole is also opaque to me. It will be a priority moving ahead.
Blackball culture: I’ve heard multiple accounts of people departing one school, setting interviews with multiple schools, and then finding those interviews canceled under strange circumstances. One sees hints, when one looks closely, of a certain level of principal mafia. If we have performance concerns about somebody, we need to be upfront about it and as clear as we can be within confines of law. No whisper campaigns. I expect my leaders to manage difficult conversations with documentable honesty, care, and directness.
No effective mechanism for safely reporting abusive or unethical behavior: I don’t think it’s an understatement to say few people in the Polk District believe they can safely report abusive or unethical behavior by their leaders. They have come to this conclusion through observation and experience. That is incredibly concerning. It is urgent that we change it. Impunity kills everything. This is an urgent priority.
As far as I’m concerned, everyone is touchable, myself included. No one is sacred. No one is indispensable. Leadership and performance can get stale and require change. I believe that with all my heart and mind. I support tough decisions, when they are well-reasoned and defensible. I support them — if they consider in good faith the health of this 13,000-person human organism. Because all schools are everyone’s schools — from the taxpayer to the custodian to the teacher to the superintendent.
Moving from chaos and survival to balance
Finally, I’m leaving town with Julie for a couple days late Friday afternoon. And I won’t be responding as readily as I usually do. But I want to leave you with something to chew on — both in the district and the wider community.
Balancing principal, school, and community autonomy with the institutional support and development needed to sustain a 13,000-person human organism is achingly hard. Make no mistake about that. We’ll never get it “right,” in the sense that there’s a definitive standard to meet. But we must always be working toward it.
The last 18 months, and especially the last year, have brought great upheaval to the Polk District. I helped bring some of it myself. Within that 18 months, we’ve gotten a new superintendent, a new ESE director, a new academic chief, a new PR director, a new HR director, and we’ll soon get a new accountability/data director. That’s just at the senior leadership level. Just off the top of my head.
Moreover, by replacing Dick Mullenax and Hunt Berryman with Sarabeth Reynolds and me, you saw a pretty significant change in political/elected official culture and direction occur mid-year. Political direction relates heavily to the labor impasse with our employees, I believe.
Add all the state-level chaos of this year — TOP schools, VAM, 7069, Schools of Fraud, etc. And the macro trends of teacher and bus drivers shortages and dissatisfaction with the 20-year Jebama test-and-punish model. Throw in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, for good measure.
All these our people and leaders were and are trying to get their bearings and establish a culture for this 13,000-person organism during arguably the most chaotic year in its history. They’re trying to set direction while also keeping the lights on. I think Jackie Byrd has done a very good job simply filling positions and rebuilding community connections. I think she has managed the potentially explosive situation with the Winter Haven community district concept quite well, as openly and fairly as anyone could. (More about that when I get back.) I think Jackie Byrd has the single toughest job in Polk County; and I observe that she takes it very seriously. I know she’s working hard. And I know I sometimes make her life harder.
But I also think, based on discussions, that she shares my belief that the district is a 13,000-person human organism. She understands we cannot afford to think of schools and roles in isolation as we move forward. We cannot afford leadership impunity. We need sensible guidelines for autonomy.
That’s all a long way of saying that 2016-17 was a year of chaos and survival. I’m inclined to cut my leadership team some slack for it. Moving ahead, I expect to see greater clarity and progress toward the mutually supportive culture I’m seeking. And I will continue to push with one hand and support with other, managing the balance as needed.
I will also do whatever I can to create a political climate in which holistic and mutually supportive thinking sets the direction and expectation for our people. Thanks for reading and hanging with us. This is a big, long-term effort. We need everybody, because all schools are everybody’s schools.