The educational empathy gap; and an offer of peace with honor in the great Neil Combee “thank you” war of 2017

I’m very protective of our people, particularly when I feel like they’re working hard and suffering to do their jobs. If people hurt them, like our Legislature often does, I try to make it painful for the people doing the hurting. That’s basically my entire philosophy of public jerkiness. I try to make it costly to harm people over whom you have power in the hope that you won’t harm them anymore.

I fancy myself as the guy who beats up the bullies — at least figuratively and on keyboards. It’s my vanity.

I tell you this to explain the great “Thank You” War of 2017. You saw a lot of it in this silly post from immediately after the hurricane.

Bottom line: I took Neil and Richard Corcoran and others to task for not publicly thanking the traditional public school employees who formed the backbone of the Florida shelter system during Irma. By contrast, they effusively thanked police and first responders, etc. I used that fact to make the point that Neil and Corcoran and Kelli Stargel don’t have much regard for public school employees — or their lives, sacrifices, and contributions.

In response, Neil thanked them sarcastically. Hijinks ensued. And that was kind of it.

I make no pretense: I need the Legislature to change, whether in who serves there or how the existing people choose to serve. Everything I do in regards to Florida’s terrible state government revolves around that goal. It’s a serious goal, even when I’m snarky about it, as I was in this case.

The new battle

I hadn’t thought much more about the thank you war until Wednesday. That’s when I learned through an email from Neil’s assistant that he’s been trying to get a detailed list of people who specifically stayed the night of Irma at shelters rather than their homes. He also wants addresses so he can send them personal thank you notes. He only wants this for people who specifically passed the night of Irma at the shelters. That is a smaller subset of the overall list of hundreds of names who staffed shelters at some point.

Both lists must be compiled from hundreds of makeshift paper timesheets designed to capture time for possible FEMA reimbursement. Here’s an example of one time sheet I was asked to fill out for my time at Phillip O’Brien. [I screwed this particular copy up. Just happened to have it lying on my desk.]

These lists are organized by total cumulated shift hours. I don’t even see a place for entering multiple different dates. There is no “passed the night of the storm” column.

Exactly who got paid (or will get paid) what and how for staffing shelters is still a little confusing to me. But more of our people will get paid by the hour for their work than I originally thought, which is good. They deserve it. Neil seems to think he’s caught me in some sort of error on that for talking about “unpaid” time at one point. To which I say: OK, you caught me.

[To my knowledge, I wasn’t paid, and I don’t want to be. If it somehow turns out that extra money ends up in my board member check, I will donate the amount to the Polk Education Foundation.]

In any event, you see how accounting in the wake of storms, with the overlapping local, state, and federal processes and funding requirements is always difficult and confusing. Any customized sublist for thank you notes has to come after accounting for the basics, if it comes at all.

Contrary to popular belief, the Polk District does not have enormous numbers of accountants and finance people at our disposal. Our state legislature doesn’t really provide enough funding to be top-heavy in those types of positions. I’m all for a better, more centralized accounting/thank you note system. Perhaps the state government that employs Neil can provide it.

For now, most of the burden of accounting for shelter time for FEMA reimbursement is falling on a single, very dedicated, very hard-working employee. He also has a day job: keep the Polk School District solvent. I fear sometimes that this employee will work himself into the grave. I am also almost certain that this employee staffed a shelter himself during Irma.

Might I suggest something

In her email to me, Neil’s assistant showed a dated listing of requests and interactions she’s had with staff trying to get this thank you note list that does not exist.

My first response to her was actually very nice. I even gave her a few names I knew personally who staffed POB. And I suggested this:

Might I suggest something?

If Neil is interested in a thank you, I think I generalized thank you note that someone reads at the board meeting might be the way to go. There are a lot of schools with a lot of people. The accounting for it is complex — apparently there is a mechanism for getting at least some of our folks paid for the work, which is good. But it’s a time consuming, labor-intensive process.

Certainly, if Neil’s also looking for an accounting, then obviously, it’s appropriate to provide one and we compile our own. But the compiling, I think, is ongoing. If it’s just a matter of thanks and good job, I think a generalized note works best and is best use of time for district people.

It soon became clear Neil wasn’t interested in that solution. And as I become more aware of the background on this, I became much more cynical about Neil’s motivations. And I became snottier.

That culminated in me posting something about this on Facebook and sending his assistant a message for him from me. It quite literally included the phrase: “pound sand.”

I take back my cynical assumption

So, predictably, Neil fired back in an email. This is what we do:

Good afternoon,

Barbara forwarded me the email you sent earlier today. First of all, let me say that I have not made a “public records” request nor has anyone representing me or my office. I will throw in the towel before I go that far. Back on September 13th, you posted a bitter complaint on Twitter that Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senator Kelli Stargel and I had not taken the time to thank the public school teachers for staffing the schools that were serving as hurricane shelters over 48 hours after the storm had exited Central Florida.

That same day I asked my staff to obtain a list of teachers, administrators and school board members who staffed the shelters during the storm. I planned then and still plan to send each one a personal note thanking them for what they did. You also posted on Twitter that PCSB staff was essentially acting as the “Red Cross” for Polk County with regard to shelters. You also wrote that they were “unpaid”. I believe and think most people would agree that teachers, administrators and school board members who may have left their home and family to staff the shelters deserve special recognition for their extraordinary effort.

I am shocked to discover that no one seems to have maintained a list of people who actually spent the night in the shelters as the storm was passing through our area. And now you say it is too much to ask for the PCSB to provide me with a list of the employees and the schools where they currently work. I intend to send a letter addressed to all employees of the PCSB to include our school board members. To do that ahead of the personal letter to each employee who stuck it out seems out of order and in my opinion disrespectful to those who sacrificed during a perilous time.

Although we still don’t have a list of employees to personally thank, I do want to thank you for your effort. After all, it was your posts on Twitter that made me realize that there were some PCSB employees who essentially stood in for the Red Cross and went above and beyond during a time of crisis for many of our neighbors who felt the need to seek shelter at our schools.

To which I responded:

Our people were too busy serving the public to make a list for you to use for your own political benefit.

Since that exchange, it has come to my ears that Neil has shown signs of helpfulness recently in more general Legislative dealings. That was a pleasant surprise. We don’t get many of those in public education these days. And I don’t want to discourage good faith. I want to reward it.

So I’m going to withdraw my assumption of bad faith on his part in this whole thing. I’m going to take down the Facebook post.

But I am going to make it clear to him that his request is, in fact, unreasonable. Even if it’s well-intentioned. It’s nonproductive to the mission of our educators. And it’s a waste of taxpayer money and of staff time and effort. That is still true.

What I take back is the idea that this should be obvious to Neil and that he’s imposing this waste of time and effort intentionally. I should not have assumed he wanted our people to suffer as an act of spite. I take that assumption back.

And I offer peace with honor in the whole thank you war. I would like for him to drop his individualized thank you note request and allow me to read a generalized note to our people at our next board meeting. I think that’s a very good compromise.

The empathy gap

The spats of Neil and Billy are silly. I know it. But in this case, I think it’s been necessary to protect our employees. And this little incident reflects one of the great problems of American education, government, and leadership in general: the inability to imagine oneself in someone else’s point-of-view or situation. The inability to imagine what it feels like to be someone else.

I have great respect and deference for people who do the work on the ground. Our governments generally do not. This is obvious. Governments and leaders today show little concern for the quality of life and work experience for people doing difficult and demanding jobs on behalf of the public. They show little inclination to regulate how power interacts with those people. This is not limited to Tallahassee. We have problems with it here in the Polk District.

What’s fascinating to me is that Neil is a very generous person. He spent hours himself volunteering for and with neighbors during Irma. I love the guy. I really do. He’d be a great neighbor. I’d love to have him live next door to me.

I truly don’t understand why that human empathy seems to turn off when people get power. The inability to imagine someone’s experience without a confrontation about it is a core human failure. It lies at the bottom of all isms. [For what its worth, the book I’m about to publish explores this at some length.]

If this goofy thank you war helps create some empathy where none before existed, if it buys a dedicated employee a little peace, then maybe we have not fought in vain.

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