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

This is the final of my three recommendations for School Board candidates recommendations. Absentee ballots for the Aug. 28 primary have already been sent.  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. The third faces a strong challenge. Change is coming. What kind of change do you want? Earlier this week, I wrote about my support for Lisa Miller for District 7 and Jennifer Sabin for School Board District 5.

Today, we’re focusing Sarah Fortney, a long-time teacher, in District 3.

Like Lisa Miller in District 7 and Jennifer Sabin in District 5, Sarah Fortney brings two broad qualities I see as vital for a very good School Board member.

  1. Sarah has a core expertise in a vital subject matter area. Indeed, she brings arguably the single most important expertise. She has taught children for 33 years. Today, she’s a successful science teacher at a traditional zoned middle school. She knows, better than anybody running, what it’s like to fight for the humanity of kids in the type of school that Florida most despises and most actively seeks to sabotage. She knows what teachers in Polk County, today, experience on the ground. No one else in any race can match that literal empathy for the experience of our current academic teachers in a test-and-punish, school grade, VAM-driven world. When she tells teachers, “I understand,” she does. Like nobody else can. She will know BS when she hears it. And she will call it out.
  2. Sarah also brings a fundamental curiosity and creative problem-solving energy that has been lacking from elected Polk School Board oversight for a generation. Please see this decade-long timeline if you need evidence of the organizational culture costs of a distant and incurious board.

In addition to these incredibly valuable traits, Sarah has demonstrated — more than anybody else I know in Polk education — two other qualities that make for elite public servants:

Extraordinary personal courage: My great grandfather had a saying that has stuck with me since I was a boy: Without courage, no other virtue is worth a damn. I’ll delve into Sarah’s courage in a moment. But believe me when I tell you she has taken personal risks in the service of making the Polk School District a better place to learn and work that nobody else in any race can match. She puts herself on the line in a way no one else does. I believe many of the people running in Sarah’s race and the others are brave. But I know Sarah is brave. I want brave people on the board with me.

A burning desire to do the job, rather than have the job: Ask the people running in these races which candidate (other than themselves) has worked the hardest in this campaign for the longest time. I think they’ll tell you Sarah Fortney, almost unanimously. Every day, Sarah pours her heart out teaching middle schoolers that the Florida model has largely forsaken as humans — as opposed to units of data for branding.

Then she he goes home, puts on her walking shoes, and works relentlessly for cultural change at the board level. She’s done this non-stop for more than a year. And she’s done it competently, at the grassroots level. Her network crosses party, ideology, race, sex — everything. Just like public education does. Sarah’s done all of this work so she can take a pretty significant pay cut to help change the culture of the district she loves. State law will require her to leave the classroom if she wins. Serving on the School Board will be her only job. You don’t often see that type of selflessness in politics. My admiration for it knows no bounds.

And it’s my admiration for Sarah’s unique strengths that drive my support. I think highly of each of her opponents in this race. I think each could be a good board member, with whom I’ll work well. All bring fresh, useful perspectives. And the idea that we have four good candidates for a specific School Board race is gratifying — and an unabashedly welcome development for this community.

A teacher Ted Dintersmith would love

Sarah is precisely the type of teacher that Ted Dintersmith championed in his recent book: What School Could Be. I wrote about that book and its disdain for the test-and-punish, rote-and-kill Florida Model here. Dintersmith is important because he’s a venture capitalist and philanthropist successfully making an important case to America’s business community: treating schools as incubators of creativity and humanity is much better for business and employers than making them incubators of test prep and fake achievement. It’s also much better for the kids and the country and family and everything else.

Hands down, Florida is the most hostile state to the idea of humane, creative education. As Rick Scott’s top education official told Dintersmith:

“You’re making this too complicated. Educating children is like fixing a car. You take a car to the garage and pay them to fix it. We pay our schools $7,000 per student and expect them to be educated.”

Sarah rejects that idea with words and action. She knows that every child has value beyond their data. She knows every child is a distinct human being. She managed to hold true to those convictions for more than three decades, while also succeeding within the Florida Model. And crucially, she’s willing to fight for both truths, in her classroom and on the Board.

You can hear Sarah talk about her vision and approach for yourself on this excellent “Teacher Voice” podcast interview from a few weeks ago.

Here’s Sarah’s “agenda” from her website.

1. Work with the superintendent and board to build transparent decision-making processes and positive relationships with ALL stakeholders.

2. Streamline redundant documentation (ex. using existing software for parent teacher communication)

3. Budget contractual cost of living as a priority, not with what’s leftover.

4. Elicit meaningful application of STEP increases as a recruiting tool and teacher incentive for continuous loyalty to our school system.

5. Work with state representatives to get Polk County Schools equitable funding from the state.

6. Aim for a sustainable balance between genuine assessments and state/district mandated tests. Including addressing the loss of classroom instruction time due to testing.

7. Address waste. Focusing the spending of funds on materials that provide sustainable value for student achievement.

8. Seek educator input on purchasing of supplies and programs used district wide. The goals being to more directly impact student achievement and a more efficient use of budgeted funds.

9. Emphasize getting effective and updated technology through district based grant writers and making it available for consistent teacher and student use.

10. Combat state interference with local level district policy making. For example, teacher and student evaluations, exceptional education and discretionary budgeting.

11. Expansion of the Community Schools program, to help build positive partnerships with community stakeholders and provide needed resources for students and their families.

12. Open opportunities for alternative education pathways including post-secondary avenues that help students gain skills for joining the workforce and dedicated to early identification of student career interest.

Every kid is worth risk and attention

Here are a couple of real-world illustrations of Sarah’s approach to kids and teaching:

I first met Sarah before I ever decided to run for School Board, during the chaotic aftermath of the rebellion against Kathryn LeRoy. She contacted me in the spring of 2016 to point out how the District was wrongly double-testing her advanced Earth Space Science kids, who had excelled on the correct test. She was absolutely right; and I helped her advocate successfully with district staff on her kids’ behalf.

It’s hard to remember how truly awful the testing climate was at its state and local peak in 2016. And how pervasive the fear of organizational retaliation was for anyone who spoke up in Polk against injustice or incompetence in the LeRoy era. Unlike almost anybody else at that time, Sarah was willing to publicly advocate for her kids; talk about her teaching experience; and challenge district leaders and elected officials — under her own name.

Later, she was willing to publicly support my campaign, when that was justifiably perceived as dangerous to an employee’s career. We’re not entirely clear of that today, unfortunately; but we’re getting there. Sarah’s courage has helped plow that path and will continue to.

Not long after I met Sarah, she asked a group of us at a meeting if any of us had an old television she could use in her classroom. Not to watch, but to take apart.

She explained she had an overaged kid in one of her classes, a multi-time casualty of Florida’s cruel and destructive retention obsession. (All education data shows that retaining a child more than once essentially destroys them. And yet…Florida. This is a huge problem in our middle schools and a drag on graduation rates.)

The child in question had largely shut down. Middle schoolers, as middle schoolers are apt to do sometimes, had been unkind. And Sarah was looking for something to reach him — to show him that he has value. She thought tinkering with the guts and electronics of a television could provide a tactile experience to boost his sense of himself and engage him in class.

There’s no such thing as a Level 1 kid or a “bubble kid” in Sarah Fortney’s classroom. Everybody matters.

Accelerate the momentum

I’m writing this a few days after one of the most productive and encouraging School Board meetings we’ve had in a long-time. This article is about Sarah, so I’m not going to detail everything here.

But I saw real signs of organizational progress, developed by senior staff, in: reforming how HR functions, building a modernized web presence that engages the public; responsiveness to community needs through staffing; very productive collaboration between management and labor in really hard insurance/compensation negotiations; scrutiny of contracting; and some very positive steps toward building lasting partnership and common purpose with Lake Wales. This came the day after the graduation of our first class of school “guardians,” a compromise plan for security that has become a model for the state in how to address the new state law about security within a population that really has no consensus about how to do it.

As I told Superintendent Byrd and staff  during the meeting, “I like all of this.”

In short, I see staff making effort to strengthen us an employer and public institution. I see attention to problems. I see some evidence of productive self-criticism. It’s no secret that we had a very difficult meeting on June 19. A lot came to a head. And we’re not fully clear of it, by any means.

But since that meeting, I’ve been extremely pleased with the direction and responsiveness of district staff leadership. And I absolutely believe that the intensity of purpose and productive scrutiny that the public demanded in 2016 is starting to pay off.

Already an accomplished leader and fighter for common purpose

Sarah Fortney was a charter member of that movement. And she hasn’t let up since then. She routinely speaks at School Board meeting, addressing the board about important issues. She modulates her message, praising when praise is called for and confronting when confrontation is called for.

She was particularly effective as an advocate in helping to end our foolish and destructive impasse with teachers and restore negotiations to a more cooperative model. I was essentially the only member of the “management” side — including the elected School Board — who opposed that impasse from the start.

Sarah was a leader among the many teachers and advocates who worked skillfully and fearlessly  with the PEA to help me force 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. Other counties have much worse labor relations today than we have, even though conditions are still difficult because this is Florida.

Indeed, Sarah has helped focus attention on the true common enemy: Tallahassee. I think we are on the cusp of a new, collaborative era with employees and management. When that fully emerges, Sarah Fortney will have been one of its key architects. She’s already effective. You can make her more effective.

A vote for intensity

Indeed, as a 2018 voter, you have to decide for yourselves how much of the potential progress I’ve cited here would have happened organically without the constructive pressure, intensity, and attention to detail you demanded in 2016. Nobody running more deeply embodies that intensity — and the courage to do hard things — than Sarah Fortney.

As a 2018 voter, you have to decide what will happen if the intensity wanes. And we still have so so so much to do. As Sarah would say, “Unite and Fight.”

Here are my other two endorsements. Please take time to read them, too.

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


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

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