The importance of questions: Why K12 matters to becoming a better employer and steward of public trust

If you can, take a moment to watch this video from the June 19th Polk County School Board work session, starting at about 2:57:30. That’s the moment I asked my fellow board members to join me in asking the State Attorney’s Office to review the K12 matter. None of them opted to join my request. Lynn Wilson wasn’t at the meeting.

I particularly want you to note Sarabeth Reynolds’ comments starting at about 3:25:30, which don’t just relate to K12. If you don’t have time to watch, she’s expressing concerns about the burdens she believes School Board questions place on staff. This is clearly a reference to me, although I don’t think she actually mentions me by name at any point.

I think it’s safe to say that Sarabeth and I both won election in 2016 as part of a movement that wanted real change in the oversight approach of the Polk School Board.  I think it’s also safe to say that since our election, we’ve chosen divergent paths in our approach to governing. That divergence culminated on June 19.

Put a pin in Sarabeth’s comments on June 19. We’re going to come back to them. They are fundamental to understanding the current philosophical/governing divide among your elected School Board members. In my view, this divide relates to organizational self-criticism. It relates to the imperative to never stop striving to become a better employer and steward of public trust, while recognizing that we will fail from time-to-time.

If we’re going to make real, permanent progress with bus driver/teacher shortages and employee quality of life concerns, the leadership of this institution must become more self-critical, more transparent, and far more willing to listen to its own stakeholders. That’s how we will become a better employer and better steward of public trust.

I’ve tried to drive that ethic of continuous organizational improvement and leadership accountability as a board member. And I think we’ve seen some progress, even if it’s begrudging at times. I’m hopeful that any new board members will join in the pushing.

A very helpful investigation and review

As it turns out, the State Attorney’s review of the K12 matter proved every bit as valuable and helpful as I hoped it would. I am very, very glad I asked for it.

First, it confirmed that no money changed hands on what would have been an illegal $1.8 million contract. Having established that, the SAO probably could have just stopped there and washed its hands, seeing no clear predicate for any prosecution.

But it didn’t. The investigator spent a lot of time figuring out the history of this sales quote/contract and efforts to collect on it. I’m grateful for that effort as an elected board member and public policy maker.  It is helping me do my job on your behalf. That effort produced this letter from the CFO of K12, dated August 8, 2018, just a few days ago. You can click to enlarge.

The second paragraph gives the official K12 point-of-view of what happened here. Note the reference to “collection efforts,” plural. Note the tense of “all collection efforts with respect to the Sales Quote have ceased,” as if they were ongoing up to the time of his letter. I would love to know the specific date on which collection efforts ceased.

This document only exists because I asked questions. If the rest of the School Board had its way, this document would not exist. The taxpayers would not have this information available to them. Indeed, when I asked other board members to sign the request I had written for an SAO review, Kay Fields responded like this: “That’s your choice. You’re on your own. I’m not signing anything.” You can see that at roughly 3:20:00.

Subjecting taxpayers to wrongful collection efforts

Although I still have many questions, I think I know enough now about what happened to draw some organizational conclusions and make some recommendations. Here’s a synopsis:

At some point in mid-to-late 2017, online learning giant K12 tried for the first time to collect from Polk County taxpayers on a $1.8 million contract that did not exist because its existence would be illegal.

The contract in question had been set in motion in May 2017 by Deputy Superintendent John Small’s direction to his subordinate to sign a $1.8 million “sales quote” with K12. A few months later, John Small went to work for K12. I still don’t know if Small was working for the Polk District or K12 when the first efforts to collect on the non-existent-because-it-would-be-illegal contract occurred.

I do know that the Polk District should have given a simple answer to K12’s collection effort: This contract does not exist because the School Board did not approve it. If it existed, it would be illegal. The taxpayers will not pay it. A second effort to collect will result in a referral to law enforcement.

That would have taken maybe five minutes of staff time. Likewise, if someone had simply brought this to the attention of the School Board, I suspect it would have died at that moment. I know I would have done whatever I could to kill those “collection efforts” immediately.

Wasted staff time and unnecessary stress

But that is not what happened.

Instead, the Polk District allowed K12 to pursue “collection efforts by K12’s accounting team” for some extended period of time. District emails show district staff still responding to K12 collection efforts and still NOT reporting them to the police in the spring of 2018, 10 months after creation of the “sales quote.” Instead, the Polk District’s response was to meet personally with K12 officials, including John Small. And the subordinate Small directed to sign the “sales quote” reluctantly give a testimonial about K12’s virtual school portal in the spring of 2018. Here is a timeline of K12 events that I put together at the beginning of the summer. 

To revisit Sarabeth’s point about waste: how much inappropriate staff time and stress was expended in dealing with these “collection efforts” on a contract that did not exist because it would be illegal for it to exist? How does it compare to the staff time spent answering my questions?

How much unnecessary stress did we inflict on parents and students by suddenly ending the online services K12 provides — through a legitimate contract — just a few days ago, right before this school year started? What are the full organizational ramifications of School Board indifference to this matter?

I hope Sarabeth will ask herself all of these questions. They are good questions. They deserve her consideration. And from my vantage point, I think it’s obvious the District did a terrible job of protecting its staff and stakeholders from inappropriate stresses and pressures in the K12 matter.

How listening and questioning lead to policy recommendations and reform

With those questions in mind, I’m making three very simple School Board policy recommendations in response to the K12 finding. I will reiterate them briefly at our Board meeting on Tuesday:

  1. Any disputed bill with a vendor involving $10,000 or more (I’m open to negotiating the threshold) will be placed on the next School Board agenda for information and review.
  2. Any second collection effort on a contract deemed illegal by staff will be immediately referred to law enforcement for review and/or action.
  3. Put in place a formal disclosure policy surrounding district staff and employment with vendors. We need to study the precise form that takes to avoid unintended consequences. I don’t think we necessarily need to ban people from going to work with vendors. That may be impractical. But we need to know about these relationships so that we can influence how they play out in doing the public’s business. If I understand Board Chair Lynn Wilson correctly, some version of this is already under some form of development. I’ve been asking for it for quire a while. I look forward to seeing it.

Various Polk School Board members are fond of saying that our only real role is to hire the superintendent — and other direct board employees — and set policy. (As if policy springs spontaneously out of the brain fully formed, like Athena.)

Board members say this, often, to suggest that questioning operations and staff behavior is off limits to School Board members. “Stay in our lane” is the phrase one often hears, both in Polk county and the state level.

But a district’s success is defined by the quality of its day-to-day operations, as is the performance of the superintendent and School Board attorney. I have no idea how elected board members believe they can fulfill their oaths and set policy that is remotely useful — or enforced — without knowing something about how the organization functions on the ground. I don’t know how on earth they can adequately evaluate our employees without knowing something about how people experience the district’s daily operations.

In this K12 case, I was informed by non-senior staff of a very troubling issue; I inquired about it and was first ignored and then given very little information by senior staff; and as a result, I asked the State Attorney’s Office to help. They did. And now, I’m informed enough to try to affect policy and guide employees who answer to the elected School Board on my expectations of reform moving forward.

This is my lane. Expect me to stay in it until the public removes me.

Aramark: “People have been very quiet”

Now I want you to take a look at another meeting.

The video that follows below comes from our April 24 board work session. In this sequence, I’ve raised concerns about the performance of Aramark, our custodial management vendor. These concerns were communicated to me by employees and AFSCME representatives who sought me out a few days before.

The entire Aramark discussion is worth a look. It starts at 3:13:40. There is a time element to the 5-year contract renewal that hampers our ability to make fundamental changes without penalty. There was no built-in performance review process for the contract that reached the board layer — so we’re left lamenting that employees didn’t tell us sooner.

And yet, after I prompted them, several board members talked about longstanding concerns with Aramark’s performance, especially during the LeRoy era. Despite those concerns, no one in leadership thought far enough ahead to set up an automatic evaluation discussion ahead of the key contractual milestones in the 5-year renewal process.

What Hazel Sellers says in response to this is striking. She doesn’t criticize leadership for not anticipating this deadline. She blames our ground level employees and custodial union for not coming forward. Hazel’s full comments start at 3:16:10. The key quote comes at about 3:17:25, when she addresses me directly.

“I understand, but I have a concern that the superintendent has not heard any complaint, nor have I. Because I would have brought them to the superintendent. People have been very quiet. Now, they brought them to you. But in the past they brought them to us.”

Hazel’s comments and the K12 matter illustrate a fundamental paradox facing our employees: if you speak up, you’re likely to be ignored or suffer consequences, or both; if you don’t speak up, you’ll be blamed for staying silent. I have found this paradox near the heart of my research into the LeRoy sexual harassment allegations, the Looney scandal, K12, Aramark, the death of Terissa Gautney, and other issues.

That paradox reflects a leadership pathology shared by many — if not most — organizations. It’s a pathology that far predates our current leadership here. I want to be clear about that. But we’re going to change that here; or I’m going to die trying.

Transcending Kelli Stargel’s terrible incentives

Finally, we must realize that Kelli Stargel’s Florida state education system is an arbitrary, authoritarian, and cruel employer.

Working conditions mean absolutely nothing to Stargel and Tallahassee in assessing the performance of any district. Taxpayer stewardship means absolutely nothing to any district’s “grade.” Nothing. They will impose VAM but say nothing about K12’s “collection efforts” from taxpayers.

The public has voted, for years, to subject educators and education stakeholders to this brutal and uncaring employer. I believe voters simply didn’t realize they were doing this because no politician really tried to tell them. I am trying to tell them every day.

More importantly, educators and bus drivers are explaining this fact to voters and the public by leaving their professions.  And I hope the voters and public are poised to make changes.

But until that fundamental state change comes, every district must act as the local agent of Kelli Stargel’s brutal state government. So every district starts with powerful disincentive to act as a good employer. Polk is far from unique in this respect.

An authoritarian leadership model doesn’t question itself. It always blames down. By contrast, I want to build a leadership culture that models public self-criticism at its highest levels.  I want us to challenge upward. We don’t really do that today. But I don’t think any other district really does it either. I’ve attended enough Florida School Board Association meetings to draw that conclusion. So we have powerful bad incentives to transcend. That is hard institutional work.

But we can lead the way in Polk County toward doing that work and modeling a new kind of district. That’s what is on the ballot on Aug. 28 and again in November.