A Moment for Regeneration, part 1: Lisa Miller for School Board, District 7

This is the first of three School Board candidate recommendations I’ll be making. I’m starting with Lisa Miller because she’s in a two-person race. It will end, one way or another, on August 28. Absentee ballots should be arriving any day, if they have not already. If you care about the future of public education in Polk County, in Florida, and in the country as a whole, it’s time to pay attention.

This is the most pivotal Polk School Board election since I moved to Lakeland as a young reporter in 1999. Two multi-term incumbents are not seeking re-election; and third faces a strong challenge. Change is coming. What kind of change do you want? Here is the first of my humble suggestions: Lisa Miller for District 7. 


Lisa Miller embodies two broad characteristics that I’ve come to see as vital for a School Board member operating within the Florida Model, especially in Polk County.

  1. She has a core expertise in a vital subject matter area. Lisa is perhaps the leading non-governmental expert/advocate for Exceptional Student Education in Florida. I have met no individual that I consider a more effective, knowledgable, and practical advocate for children with physical or learning disabilities. More on that in a moment.
  2. She brings a fundamental curiosity and creative problem-solving energy that has been lacking from elected Polk School Board oversight for a generation, prior to my election in 2016. Please see this decade-long timeline if you need evidence of the organizational culture costs of a distant and incurious board.

I’m delighted to say that I support Lisa so strongly because of her unique strengths, not because of any concerns about her opponent, David Byrd. David is a good candidate; and it’s a very high quality race. I will work well with whomever wins. But I believe Lisa will immediately become an elite School Board member — both in energy and insight. We will need both to work through many of Polk’s long-standing structural challenges.

ESE exerts a powerful gravity on everything we do. Lisa will help.

The last time I checked, roughly 13 percent of Polk students were considered ESE because of a disability of some sort. That’s about 14,000 kids. ESE, legally, also includes students considered “gifted,” which is foolish because of the very different needs of the populations. But when you include “gifted” kids, you get to about 20,000 ESE students.

That population proportion is pretty consistent with national numbers. So, to some extent, every school district in America faces this challenge. And none of us get it precisely right, I’m willing to say.

It is hard to overstate the scale, importance, and complexity of the organizational challenge involved in meeting the individual needs of our ESE students. It is compounded by the need to comply with murky, poorly funded, and unevenly enforced state and federal laws. Districts must also reckon with Florida’s hideous and corrupt accountability system, while simultaneously serving the individual needs of our non-ESE students.

ESE students are some of most vulnerable human beings on earth. The last year in Polk County demonstrated that clearly. It saw troubling incidents at our schools for profoundly disabled children, as well as the terrible, preventable death of Terissa Gautney on one of our buses. Better supports and leadership attention are vital to preventing these tragedies. Careful, executable systems of support literally can mean life and death.

ESE classification and support requirements also play heavily into “discipline” or “behavior” policies and procedures. It’s often difficult to distinguish between what’s simply a childhood behavioral issue — and what’s a disability.

This is all further complicated by ESE segregation. The vast majority of ESE kids are concentrated in traditional zoned schools, which also face the relentless pressure and sabotage of the Florida Model of Education, as imposed from Tallahassee.

I would wager that no one in Florida knows more about how all this fits together in law and practice  than Lisa Miller. I am not ashamed to admit she knows much more than I do. And I look forward to working closely with her to find solutions.

A former teacher. A parent. An advocate.

Lisa developed her insights and knowledge through the classroom and through living the experience of an ESE parent. This is from her campaign website:

Lisa served as a classroom teacher for three years. After her son Michael was born with developmental delays she began working to improve the lives of all children with disabilities. She has spent the last decade building advocacy networks at the local and state level, and she understands the need for systemic change.

Lisa has chaired the Polk County ESE Advisory Board since 2010, and represented Polk county as a member of Florida’s State Advisory Committee on Exceptional Student Education with the Florida Department of Education since 2014. Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to chair the Family Care Council for Area 14 in 2012. She also worked with the city of Lakeland to form the Alliance on Accessibility. She believes creating access for all students by building learning communities and encouraging community partnerships will increase student performance and create positive outcomes.

Lisa served as a classroom teacher for three years. After her son Michael was born with developmental delays she began working to improve the lives of all children with disabilities. She has spent the last decade building advocacy networks at the local and state level, and she understands the need for systemic change.

What does all that mean in a practical sense?

It means that Lisa is arguably the most knowledgable, compassionate, and effective real world ESE advocate in the state of Florida. I cannot possibly count the number of people in this county to whom she has served as a resource. I cannot count the number of people I’ve sent to her for help, whom she has helped.

She has been a tremendous resource for me as a board member in trying to learn and improve how ESE functions. Believe me when I tell you that any superintendent of schools in Florida would be wise to consider Lisa for his or her ESE director.

Moreover, Lisa’s advocacy is both practical and cross partisan. Disability transcends party and division like almost nothing else. And Lisa’s productive network is extraordinarily diverse, as is her ability to work with all different types of people.

And it’s important to note that Lisa’s number 1 priority is providing support for the teachers who must address the myriad of bewildering ESE challenges where the rubber meets the road. At a forum last week, she talked about the teachers who call her late at night sobbing because they don’t have the support they need to adequately address children with extraordinarily challenging circumstances or behaviors.

Systems don’t improve themselves

On top of all that, Lisa understands that static expertise isn’t enough. To make beneficial change, you have to put and keep your shoulder to the wheel. She and I share that commitment. And obviously, I’m writing this statement of support to encourage people who like what I’m doing on the School Board to see Lisa as an ally.

She is one; but she’s also fiercely independent.

As an ESE parent and advocate, Lisa believes powerfully in human-centered education and despises test-and-punish as a model. She believes — knows in her bones in a way most of us can’t — that our kids are much more than data. She will back that up with real action and courage.

Lisa will listen to our people in the field as closely as I do. She will care as much as I do about making the Polk district a safe and ethical place to work for everyone. She will ask as many questions of leadership as I do. She will have as many new ideas as I do. She will care as much as I do about how we implement programs and policies at the ground level. She will care as much as I do about protecting, developing, and supporting our people doing this hard work. She will insist that our state government and legislators act as educational partners, not saboteurs.

Lisa’s style for applying her energy and passion is less hard-edged than mine. But she is no less clear-eyed, honest, and direct. When I’m wrong, she will tell me. Directly and publicly. When we disagree, she will tell me why. And it will be a good reason. Indeed, she already does this. Lisa is an informed, confident student of education policy. She is a fiercely independent thinker and citizen.

Lisa is more executive than insurgent in her style of interaction and advocacy. She’ll probably make fewer enemies than I do. That’s a strength, not a weakness, especially as the Florida Model begins to move away from test-and-punish, which I believe it will in coming years.

This is a moment for regeneration of the elected School Board’s function. The future of public education is uncertain and rife with both opportunity and peril. Electing a Polk School Board whose majority values professional curiosity and intensity of purpose will have powerful transformative impact on operational culture of the district as a whole. It will position us far better to shape our own destiny as a community than we are positioned today.

Lisa Miller will be a tremendous asset in that effort.


A Moment for Regeneration, part 3: Sarah Fortney for School Board District 3

A Moment for Regeneration, part 2: Jennifer Sabin for School Board District 5