Kelli Stargel’s weird, day-late letter — and the great value of public confrontation

You may remember that I invited Kelli Stargel to attend the Polk School Board meeting on April 24th. I wanted her to address the board and public before we voted on the so-called “turnaround” schools that she and state educrats conspired to sabotage in multiple ways over the last couple of years.

Here’s how she declined the invitation.

Stargel’s key quotes: her school closure/outsource list “is not a matter of [state] laws” and “it’s a board issue and you guys are going to have to deal with it.”

The day after April 24th meeting, which I’ll come to in a minute, Stargel sent a very strange and self-justifying letter to the seven board members, Superintendent Jackie Byrd, and Wendy Dodge, our government affairs person. That’s it. Nine people. To my knowledge, she has not posted it publicly anywhere.

The meeting was the 24th, Kelli

This letter’s stated purpose, in the opening paragraph, is this:

I am writing to provide some information that I trust will be helpful as you make the difficult decisions that are needed to approve turnaround option plans for the six schools in Polk County currently determined to need improvement. These decisions are critical for the families and students in our community.

These decisions are so “critical for the families and students in our community” that she sent her helpful information the day after we took this critical vote. That’s how truly lazy and uninterested in her “community” this person is. Take a look.

I’ll post a picture of the whole thing down at the bottom.

The timing of this letter is just the first manifestation of its oddness. It seems to serve no purpose other than rebutting me. I’m the only board member whose positions, words, or actions are specifically addressed, although she doesn’t do it by name.

But she’s literally making this self-justifying rebuttal to only nine people. Most, if not all, of these people already have quite well-formed positions on how I operate as a board member. Thus, the only real effect of this letter seems to be to provide me with material — and a pretty clear example of the benefits of my approach to governing and politics.

So thanks, Kelli…I guess.

Political confrontation and competition changes political behavior for the better

I tend to hear a core critique of the idea that we should hold legislators and state educrats — as well as local leaders — publicly accountable. It goes like this: you better be nice to them; or they’ll retaliate and make your kids, teachers, and community suffer. Flies and honey.  

That’s a terrible, terrible way to think in a representative democracy. It’s toxic. It does more to harm real people and empower bad political action than any other philosophy about political power I know. And it’s not even true. We haven’t confronted our legislators for a generation. We smiled for pictures with them every time. And all we got for it was suffering.

Stargel’s self-justifying letter makes a beautiful living rebuttal to the retaliation critique. Indeed, ask yourself, if not for the scrutiny under which we’ve placed her for the last year or so, do you think she writes this letter at all?

Of course not.

She knows that voters are looking closely at her for the first time in her career. She’s in the fight of her political life and feels the need to convince somebody, anybody that she’s a friend to this community, rather than the unseen enemy she’s been for years.

And that’s why, win or lose in November, the public scrutiny will continue. It’s valuable in its own right. It affects behavior for the better.

Some highlights from the letter

Here are a few key lines from Stargel’s letter, with some context inserted from me in italics:

On “local control” and governing autonomy

“I support local control and autonomy throughout the state because Florida is a large, diverse state. Even within our community, different students and population groups have different needs.”

This is a lie. See the 1800 lost years of Polk instruction Kelli caused here.

On the Stargel School Kill List

“The turnaround options provided in statute are not intended to be punitive. They are simply the steps that must be taken to raise the quality of education where the results have shown that quality is lacking…

“…While some want only to highlight the “threat of school closure,” I appreciate that many of you have made thoughtful deliberations into which options are truly best for helping the students, teachers, and families that make up these schools. Closing a school is included as a last and final drastic measure if school boards refuse to act, as some in our community, and at least one of your members, has suggested you do.”

Also a lie. See this essay and the choices imposed by the law. The state’s Kelli Stargel school closure list was pretty clear about the choices it imposed on us. Close the school; close and reopen as a charter without neighborhood zoning; or do some other weird outsourcing move in which nobody who works at the school can be a school district employee. We didn’t choose any of that. We’re not firing anybody. We’re not turning the school over to an outside operator. We’re contracting for some personnel help. And supposedly, the state seems OK with that, as does Kelli Stargel. I suspect that’s because they didn’t want this political fight in an election year. And that’s why I decided to vote for our non-compliant plan. See full explanation below from the April 24 meeting.

On Florida’s and Polk’s long-standing starvation education funding

“Because of the efforts of our Polk County legislative delegation, this year we were able to obtain an additional $7.6 million dollars to assist the Polk County School Board with a change in the compression allocation. As you are aware, Polk County gets over $748,000,000 which amounts to about $7150.00 per student. You are also aware that the division of those funds is governed by a formula that divides up the student allocations amongst the counties, and prior court rulings require these funds to be roughly equivalent throughout the state, with allowances for cost of living. Throughout the country, it has been shown that expenditures do not necessarily correlate with positive results. However, I am committed to continue working to the extent the formula can be adjusted, as I did this year, to ensure that Polk County receives its equitable share of the revenue.”

Here’s a reality check: Polk is the fastest growing large district in Florida, and by far, the worst funded. Thanks for all your hard work over the years, Kelli and legislators, to fund the schools in our fast-growing community so poorly. Click the image to enlarge.

“As I did this year”

Take a look at this sentence again.

“However, I am committed to continue working to the extent the formula can be adjusted, as I did this year, to ensure that Polk County receives its equitable share of the revenue.”

This year? And what about all the other years? You don’t get to 64th of 67th in funding unless your legislators take a lot of years off. Do you remember Stargel — or anyone representing you in Tallahassee — even talking about Polk’s funding shortfall for the last decade?

Also, Kelli Stargel did not have anything to do with how fast Polk’s district is growing, which accounts for part of the less awful relative funding. The other less-awfulness comes from a so-called “compression” change in Florida’s stingy funding equation. It provided Polk with a slightly larger crumb than many better-funded districts received.

Adjusted for inflation, Florida is still spending $1,000 less per child on education than it did in 2006, before the economic crash. That’s even for the BEST-funded district. Because of the indifferent and useless performance of Kelli Stargel and other legislators, Polk is among the worst-funded districts.

Moreover, the key player in that “compression” change was Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, by all the accounts we’ve seen, not Kelli. That’s why the board sent Simpson a note of appreciation, not Kelli.

Even allowing for the compression/growth benefit, Polk, like the rest of Florida, is still far below what’s needed for basic sustained subsistence. The extra $8 million or so this year may allow us to limp through this election year without massive cuts to personnel or programs — if we keep reserves at an exceedingly low 4 percent and freeze everybody’s pay.

And health insurance costs are going to go up for employees and the board alike. I’ll be writing more about this; but board inattention prior to my election and the incredibly destructive and pointless impasse I fought for my first year in office are forcing us to make a sudden, significant adjustment.

The “status quo” is bad

I talked about all of this with the Tampa Bay Times, which did a story on cuts that districts across the state are planning. I said we could probably avoid cuts in Polk this year, other than to the insurance plan. Here’s the passage from that story.

Choices are key, suggested Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend. His district looks likely to have sufficient funding for the year, thanks largely to growth and changes in the state funding formula that benefited Polk more than any other county. [Billy note — I don’t think I said “any other county.” I think I said “most other counties” or “among big districts.” I don’t know enough about all other districts to say something so categorical. Not a huge deal and TBT does good work. Just wanted to clarify.] 

But the board also has to do things like keep its reserves lower than recommended, and not fill jobs when employees leave.

“I think we can status quo to the end of the year,” Townsend said, also predicting that raises are not likely.

The “sufficient funding” reference should have read “sufficient funding to avoid major cuts this year.” But otherwise, that’s a reasonably accurate distillation of what I said.

Amusingly, one of Kelli’s assistants, Chad Davis, apparently read this article, clipped my passage, and posted this on his Facebook page.

Key quote: “Something I did not expect to read in this article.”

I can’t decide if my passage surprised Chad because he knows how horrible the funding really is; or because a politician trying to be intellectually honest and do a good job is foreign to his experience. Probably both.

In any event, there’s no need for guesswork. Anytime Chad and his boss want to sit down in public to discuss education and our relative job performance, I am happy to do so. We need not communicate through Facebook, letter, newspaper, or campaign mailer. As Kelli and Chad know from experience, I am quite happy to chat them up to their faces. I think the public would prefer that.

But Kelli’s pretty clear that’s not how she rolls. Here’s how she concluded her letter to us:

“I have not received a formal request to attend this week’s school board meeting. I am not certain what role I, or any of the other members of our delegation, would serve at such a meeting. However, I did receive an “informal request” from one of your members who had his cell phone aimed at me and inquired whether I would be attending. As always, my office stands ready to assist the Polk County School Board in any way necessary as you perform the statutory and constitutional roles you serve in our community.”

I assure you, if I ever had the misfortune of finding myself in Tallahassee, I would understand exactly how important I am to local public education. You would not have to formally ask me to engage. I would know that I set local funding, evaluation rules, and punishments. And I would feel a certain responsibility to my community to understand and adjust my decisions based upon their impact on my community.

The fact that Kelli is “uncertain” of the value of actively engaging with the local officials who must carry out her thoughtless and incompetent mandates says a lot about her. It says about the same thing that sending the letter to us a day late does.

The scrutiny won’t end; because it works

And that brings us back to the value of constructive confrontation.

As you’ve seen, Kelli Stargel has spent zero political capital in her legislative career on your kids and teachers. Instead, she’s built her career as a leadership yes-woman on the backs of your kids and teachers. She’s been rewarded for it in Tallahassee. Have you been rewarded for it here? Has the life of a teacher improved in any way through her actions? Or have teachers completely missed out on the economic recovery of the past few years — thanks to your legislators.

Stargel has been able to get away with this because no one has been willing to scrutinize her in a sustained way. In my short time on the board, I’ve made constructive scrutiny and confrontation with Kelli Stargel and our Legislature an important part of my role. I make no apologies for it. The public is free to remove me in 2020 if this displeases them.

But I think the results bear out the success of this approach. To recap:

  • Less awful relative funding, for which Kelli feels the need to take credit.
  • A turnaround school “solution” far less punitive and destructive than the state educrats wanted.
  • An end, for now, to state-sponsored sabotage of our schools and teachers using Stargel’s VAM evaluation equation.
  • The inexplicable, but welcome, “School of Hope” grant for Kathleen High with funding for mental health support. [Will be writing more about that.]
  • Legislators seeking to justify themselves in strange, hidden-from-the-public letters.

This is the opposite of retaliation. And that’s just from the last year. It’s the benefit of public scrutiny — the benefit of sharp, but honest, critique.

Now imagine if we had an actual constructive partner in Tallahassee, someone like Bob Doyel, who I didn’t have to publicly browbeat into at least pretending to do the job out of political fear.

The only argument for ending this scrutiny is that Kelli will seek to punish her community if she wins in November. And that’s not an argument. We’ve all lived through her unscrutinized, pre-taliation for years.

I’ll take my chances with paying attention and keeping the pressure on her, no matter what happens.


The entire letter is posted in picture below. You’ll see a reference to the NAEP test. Here’s an essay worth reading about that bit of hokum. 



2 thoughts on “Kelli Stargel’s weird, day-late letter — and the great value of public confrontation

  1. Good Job Billy. Tell Chad that we appreciate the extra three cents per student in funding they have provided to our county. It will go a LONNNGGGG way.

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