Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Whether you like football or not, are mad at the players or not, it’s a sort of quasi-national holiday. For me, it’s also become a Polk County national holiday, a day of celebration and reflection.
Two Super Bowl Sundays ago, Wendy Bradshaw and I held an impromptu public meeting at high noon at the Lakeside Village Starbucks in Lakeland to organize around removing then Sup. Kathryn LeRoy from office. I had hoped that 10 people would show up. We got 90 or more, representing both public education professionals and the public.
All were disgusted, not just with the allegations against LeRoy, but with the overall culture of contempt for employees and incompetence demonstrated by the top leaders she brought had here. All of us rebels were disgusted by the direction of our state legislators. All were ready for organized activism. All believed in human-centered public education.
Together, we formed Citizens for Better Educational Leadership, which eventually morphed into the core of my campaign for School Board.
The community can assert its will productively
It is impossible to know for certain; but I have always thought that Kathryn LeRoy would still be superintendent today if the public had not organized that day to begin taking back our school system. She showed no shame or interest in resigning after the report detailing Greg Rivers’ allegations of harassment and mismanagement came out. The report itself largely recommended ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. LeRoy took it as vindication. She made an astonishingly tone deaf, self-exonerating, and self-indulgent video.
And the School Board at the time, with the exception of Lynn Wilson, showed no great enthusiasm or interest in acting. That’s why we called the meeting. That’s why we formed Citizens for Better Educational Leadership. We made it clear, as Hazel Sellers said at the time, that “the community” wasn’t going to let LeRoy continue.
“There has to be some consequences for these kind of behaviors but my question now — I believe Kathryn would do everything in her power to turn this around, but I don’t know if the community is willing to let her go forward,” Sellers said. “I was hoping we could survive this, but now, it depends.”
I’m going to come back in a moment to the great positive benefits of our community making that clear. But first, take a look at a searing example of the simple, enormous addition-by-subtraction cultural benefits of no longer having LeRoy and her inner circle in place.
“Ms. LeRoy concurred but said it didn’t matter; that her ‘career is on the line’.”
What follows has never before been made public.
It’s an affidavit from a guy named Joey Wise. He is the former superintendent of Duval County, who recruited former Polk Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy to Jacksonville in 2007. He was also the owner/creator of Acceleration Academy, a drop-out retrieval and prevention alternative program. Under LeRoy, to whom Wise had been a career patron, Polk County gave AA one of its first significant contracts, despite a number of staff concerns.
The School Board approved the contract on September 9, 2014 on the consent agenda. I see no evidence that the board ever had a substantive public discussion of this contract. And the relationship between Polk County and AA did not go well. No one actually agrees on the specific amount; but Polk paid AA several million dollars in state FTE money and got very few diplomas out of it, perhaps fewer than 20. The AA contract was one the allegations of malfeasance that Greg Rivers leveled against LeRoy, in addition to the sexual harassment claims.
The contract with AA ended in litigation and a settlement that the School Board, including me, voted to approve back on December 11. We paid $250,000 to AA and its lawyers. This is an excerpt from an affidavit that Wise gave as part of the litigation.
On October 28, 2015, I received a telephone communication from Katherine LeRoy, Superintendent of Polk County Public Schools, beginning at 7:47 AM EST, in which she stated:
a. She was being accused of sexual harassment.
b. Claims against her included an allegation that she had improperly recommended and then improperly supervised Acceleration Academies’ contract and another vendor’s contract;
c. That, for “political cover” she had ordered all scheduled payments to Plaintiff and the other vendor to stop until her name was cleared;
d. That such an order would demonstrate her strong supervision over both vendors.
I stated that I didn’t understand her logic, that our work had been producing strong and unprecedented academic results, and that there wasn’t even a hint of impropriety associated with Acceleration Academies.
Ms. LeRoy concurred but said it didn’t matter; that her “career is on the line.”
I think that speaks largely for itself. And it has nothing to do with sexual harassment. It could happen only because no one in the community at large — including the School Board, The Ledger, and me — was adequately watching the non-elected leaders of our district back in 2014. They had impunity, and they knew it.
Today, we are watching. And the community is engaged. That is benefit number one of the Starbucks Rebellion.
Our district leaders, most of whom are fairly new, know it. Anything is possible; but I have a very hard time imagining that a personal relationship with a school district leader can lead to a dubious multi-million business relationship without pretty severe consequences in this new era. I think our leaders know that. I think the managers and staff below them know that I want to know if they sense that happening.
As I said at the meeting when we approved the settlement: “This better never happen again.” Indeed, I have requested a formal “relationship disclosure” policy for contracts. I’ll be revisiting that in the future.
Our community is fair, supportive, and accommodating in my experience. For the most part, community expectations are pretty reasonable. Where they are not, it’s my job to explain why, publicly. But “no more AA-type deals” is a pretty reasonable expectation. “Put our kids before your career” is pretty reasonable expectation. I want the community to actively expect both.
To that end, I spend much of my time confronting, analyzing, and explaining publicly the challenges that our district faces. I think that’s the essence of good leadership — looking hard things squarely in the eye and trying to act to improve them incrementally and imperfectly.
I am most focused on climate within schools and human capital management, which are different, but related things. And they are human-based organizational challenges that all public school districts face. If you want to rehash some details in those areas, here are two recent good links.
But on the two-anniversary of the Starbucks Rebellion, I want to spend the rest of this post celebrating the real benefits of the public’s re-assertion of influence (not yet control) on the direction of public education in this county and state.
Generational change that we should celebrate
The Starbucks Rebellion marked a generational turning point for this school district. Here are a few examples of the consequences of that.
The School Board of Super Bowl Sunday 2019 will be radically different, younger, and more sympathetic to the activist principles of the Starbucks Rebellion than the School Board of Super Bowl Sunday 2016.
Four of the 2016 board members have either been replaced or are not running again. Another long-term board member has two opponents in the upcoming election. Political competition is the most vital form of competition in public life. It works; it’s how new ideas become law.
With one exception, I have spoken at some length to to every single new candidate running in the 2018. Every one of these candidates is running with the ideas of Starbucks rebellion: teacher quality-of-life and support, better human capital management, demands for change in Tallahassee’s behavior, less testing, more humanity for ESE students, more meaningful education experiences, greater openness. (And I have every reason to believe that the candidate I haven’t spoken to has similar priorities.) That’s what a successful movement looks like, when the political competition revolves around who will best deliver the same broad strategic vision. No one is running on a counter-revolution. No one. That’s a lesson our awful legislators would de well to heed.
Kathryn LeRoy, Heather Wright, and Jacque Bowen are all gone. Jackie Byrd, Sandra Riley-Hawkins, and Michael Akes are better as an academic team.
I’m not going to get into a full critique/analysis of Jackie Byrd’s leadership in this post. But I have been generally pleased by her hires. LeRoy, Bowen (chief academic officer), and Wright (accountability director) presided over a regime of testing, misery, incompetence, and confusion. The new team is better. Riley-Hawkins is a particular breath of fresh air in the data and accountability office, where Wright was an utter and complete disaster.
We are openly fighting the state’s assaults on our kids and people
To the credit of my fellow board members, we voted unanimously to sue our destructive and incompetent state government over 7069. And we are increasingly open, as a board, with our criticisms of legislative awfulness.
We’ve reduced testing, although issues remain
EoYs are essentially dead, although some pockets of facsimiles remain. We still do progress monitoring that some people interpret as unnecessary testing. I’d love to get to zero negative experiences with testing/assessment. It’s a work in progress, tied to the state’s fraudulent measurement, accountability, and testing regime.
We’ve done away with the School Board Attorney’s automatically renewing three-year deal.
When I joined the board, Lynn Wilson and I lost that vote 5-2. This time we won it 5-2. With the same board members. We sent a message that no one is indispensable, especially in leadership. That’s a message that our people on the ground need to hear.
We ended the destructive impasse productively. Labor relations are improving
Supporters of the Starbucks Rebellion and I opposed the impasse from well before the district declared it. And eventually, through unflinching argument and in conjunction with the skillful work of the PEA, we forced a negotiated settlement in which no one had to win or lose. Today, the union-busting Tallahassee lawyers who helped poison negotiations are gone. And management and labor are talking to one another productively. In other counties (see Hillsborough), they are not. We’re also realizing that we share the true common enemy: Kelli Stargel and Tallahassee. I think we are on the cusp of a new, collaborative era with employees and management. I can promise you that it’s my priority to deliver it.
During the campaign, people often asked me how I would build consensus as a single board member with a reputation for confrontation. This is how. With confrontation. With patient, relentless arguments that I’m on the right side of. Backed by mobilized stakeholders and a mobilized public.
Jay Gallman, one of our very best teachers and a Starbucks Rebellion stalwart, has survived cancer and redoubled his commitment to our kids and education system.
I just wanted to note that. Jay teaches at Southwest Middle in Lakeland, where he engages every kid with everything he has. He recently organized a college and career fair. He organizes assemblies with successful people. He fires off ideas to me constantly.
A year or so ago, I feared he was going to die. He was very, very sick. Today he’s back to being Jay; fearless, constructive, vastly underpaid and worth a million Kelli Stargels or Kathryn LeRoys.
This is the beauty that happens on the ground in your public school system
Indeed, Jay and others are who I had in mind when I wrote this last week:
Our people on the ground, every day, create meaningful, transforming experiences with almost no help from the toxic educational leadership class. Continuing to do it makes them heroes. They are why I ran for office.
Let me tell you this: within our 14,000 or so employees — and endless volunteers — working with 103,000 or so kids, there are so so many people giving everything for non-existent or substandard pay to develop, serve, and challenge young people. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
And here’s a little list — from just the last week, just from my personal interactions, where I saw the people of the Polk School District community doing things right on the ground. Or working hard to get to right.
— A teacher named Rhonda Rice brought to my attention a Kathleen High honor student named Aalayah Jones, who is selling homemade pound cakes to raise money for a dance trip to Washington D.C. So I bought one, and I got to meet Aalayah and her dad.
She’s heading off to Bethune Cookman for college and will rule the world benevolently one day. She called Rhonda her “grandma,” with deep affection. Also, the cake is freaking delicious. I asked her, “you made this from scratch?” She looked at me vaguely insulted. “Oh yes, a mix is gross.”
— Last Saturday, I shuffled back and forth between the all-day Polk County JV basketball tournament (my son is on the LHS JV team) and the All-County theater performance event at Polk State College.
Two very different types of crowds and cultures and events — but with very similar commitment from the teachers and coaches and sponsors of both. I can’t count all the school district adults who sacrificed a Saturday to challenge and celebrate kids in sports or drama. And watching kids from differing backgrounds support each other in pursuit of a common purpose is, to me, the holy grail.
Listen to the joy and enthusiasm and support from these kids cheering the success of one of their friends.
At the theater event, each winning performance was repeated at the awards ceremony. All the actors and singers introduced their performances with some clever and enthusiastic take on, “We proudly represent our school.” Several of the seniors added the poignant line, “For the last time.”
— Tuesday, I met with the community school development group met at Crystal Lake Elementary to identify the next steps in making that school happen. There will be a specific public update soon, but we’re getting close. (If Kelli Stargel doesn’t succeed in killing it. Crystal Lake Elementary is on her kill list.) Remember, this is a community project, led and developed by the community in conjunction with the school district.
— Tuesday night was the county’s annual Martin Luther King essay contest. One winning essay, from a young Hispanic boy, said he looks at Dr. King and see that he can be president one day. There are people in our district, every day, encouraging him to think that, encouraging him to write it down and announce it to the public. And check out this picture of award winning saxophonist and Crystal Lake Elementary music teacher, Jazmin Ghent, who played for the crowd. She kills it.
— Even later Tuesday night, I hung out with Jill Bevis, volunteer extraordinaire. She is the president of the Lawton Chiles Middle PTSA and the volunteer “director of basketball operations” for Lakeland High School. She doesn’t even have a kid at Lakeland High. When her son played for LHS a couple years back, she explained, she became so attached to the youngsters in the program that she stayed on to raise money for gear and pre-game meals. And she spends hours and hours supporting and cheering them on. I cannot thank her enough.
— On Thursday, we unveiled the student design competition for a new logo for Polk Schools. We held a symposium on brand thinking and design that hosted more than 150 kids.
This isn’t just a meaningful and practical educational opportunity for our talented kids, it’s a demonstration that we can learn from mistakes and think smarter. One of the acts that eventually blew up in LeRoy’s face was a $75,000 branding contract, which also passed on a consent agenda. Internal and external stakeholders were generally displeased with every aspect of the project; and I think it just sort of died. It took a ton of public heat.
Many of us rolled our eyes back then and said, “Why wouldn’t you have students do it?” Well, this time we did. Our new Public Relations director Rachel Pleasant, another good hire, painstakingly put together a terrific plan. She recruited multiple design academies from our high schools and local brand experts to mentor them. It costs us nothing. The kids are excited to compete. Our logo is dated and needs refreshing. It’s safe to say that our leadership was nervous about touching this hot brand pot again. But to their credit, they learned from LeRoy’s mistakes and have created a “branding” process that actually enhances our educational brand though its very existence.
— On Friday, several of us attended the All Together Now conference in St. Pete, where we studied how to better protect and serve our LGBTQ kids, who have vastly elevated levels of suicide and depression. There are people in this community and district working hard to address that within the cultural realities of Polk County.
— Friday night, I went to the Bartow High – Lakeland High basketball game. It was senior night for Bartow; and they had a truly moving ceremony. Each senior and his parents got a long, loving narrative from the announcer and then climbed a ladder to take down his name from the varsity roster board. I was struck by the academic accomplishments of many of the senior basketball players.
— And last night was Sophomore Dining Out for Summerlin Academy.
In this annual event, older Summerlin students serve sophomores a fine dining, multi-course experience. The idea is to model etiquette and conversational composure — to expose the kids to formality and ceremony and help them understand how to function elegantly within it.
I love Sophomore Dining Out. I get to hang out for hours with young people experiencing something new. Nobody’s on their phones except for pictures. I get to talk to them about their lives and schools.
I traded World War II trivia challenges with one young man. (He stumped me on one. I got him on one.) A young woman talked about her relatives in Puerto Rico, who still do not have power. Another young man showed me his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, which dressing up formally gave him an excuse to wear. Another young woman explained how she gets to school each morning from North Lakeland. It’s a three-bus odyssey that starts at 5:30 a.m. — every morning. One of our waiters for the night was a young man I sat with last year, who is excited about pursuing a career in law enforcement.
The kids and adults of Summerlin, led by teacher and organizer Kimberly Crandall, worked many shifts at Bucs games to fundraise for Sophomore Dining Out, which no one is charged entry to. Major Crandall and volunteers all over the school and community put hours and hours and hours of time into creating this experience that Summerlin kids are likely to remember forever.
Our School District can be whatever we make it
I saw all of that with just own eyes in a pretty typical week.
Think how much else is happening every day that I don’t see. Think how much effort and care the people of public education — all of us — are putting into this mission.
The Starbucks Rebellion erupted to honor and grow that effort and commitment. It erupted because the public was tired of charlatans like Kathryn LeRoy profaning that effort for their own career and benefit.
Today, this rebellion is growing in Florida because the public is tired of charlatans like Kelli Stargel and Richard Corcoran doing exactly the same thing. The Starbucks Rebellion shows they can be beaten — that communities can impose a cost for spitting on the efforts and suffering and passion of the people of public education.
Two years ago today, we announced clearly that this is our public school system; and we are willing to fight for it. We have fought every day since. We have much fighting left to do.
But today, after I finish this piece and do one last meeting this afternoon, I’m going to crawl into my hot tub and watch the Super Bowl on a badly rigged outdoor television. I might even have a cocktail. It is important, if we are to sustain and grow the movement, that we take a moment to celebrate what we’ve accomplished and enjoy ourselves. The fight is always there to return to. It must inspire us, not consume us.
I implore everybody who has had a role in changing the direction of this district to take a moment today to smile and enjoy some well-earned satisfaction. Then we’ll get back at it next week.