The unenforceable, anti-public, anti-employee School Board communication policy illustrates a cultural problem. It’s already largely ignored. It will be changed.

Late last week, Polk School District leadership sent out an email to all staff describing the strict official terms on which employees of our School District may communicate with their elected board members. The email summarizes a School Board policy created in 2013. I did not create or vote for that policy.

As you’ll see, the email summary actually misrepresents the specific policy, which includes the caveats “preferred” and “should.” Here’s a screen shot.

The summary email, which I’m publishing below, wipes out the caveats included in the real policy language.

The actual policy was unanimously adopted on November 12, 2013.  Current board members Kay Fields, Tim Harris, Hazel Sellers, and Lori Cunningham — the four long-term incumbents — all voted for it. If I were them, I’d be pretty annoyed with the absence of “should” and “preferred” in that districtwide policy summary.

But even with the caveats, consider what they did: your elected officials, to whom you pay more than $40,ooo per year and offer health insurance, acted to set pretty hard limits on how their constituents can address them, presumably under pain of organizational punishment.

I reject those limits. Lisa Miller can certainly speak for herself as a newly elected board member. But I wager that she and at least two other remaining board candidates reject those limits, too.

That difference in attitude toward all constituents is a big part of what’s on the ballot in November. The current board attitude acts as a drag on the real organizational progress we are making on a number of fronts. It limits us and slows us down.

This policy will change if I have anything to say about it

Thankfully, this absurd policy is already broadly ignored, even by the board members who voted for it, I suspect. I’m pretty sure they’re not actually saying, “No, I prefer not talk to you” if it’s someone they want to talk to.

But openly flouted, unenforceable policies and laws are bad policies and laws.

So after the election, my first request to whomever sits on the new School Board will be to repeal this policy and replace it with something reasonable and reflective of our roles as your elected representatives. [I may actually do that sooner. I’ll even write a suggested replacement policy in the next few days. Because I am constructive.] No good employer fears what its employees or stakeholders have to say. Confident organizations don’t send that email to their employees. We’re going to become a confident organization, if it kills me.

For now, here’s the policy “reminder” that went out. Note the first sentence in bold in section 1. Try to find the word “should” or “preferred.”

When you’re done reading it, I want to talk a little bit about the cultural and civic dysfunction it represents that has long dwelt damagingly at the heart of Florida’s — and Polk County’s — anti-democratic public education leadership model. We are fighting to change that model and starting to have success.

Subject: Please share Board Staff Communication Memo and Policies with your Staff

Good afternoon,

The beginning of a new school year is a good time for a policy refresher on Board-Staff Communications. Attached you will find our School Board-approved policy for each employee group which outlines how communications between the Superintendent, Staff and Board members are to be conducted and how requests from Board members for additional information are to be processed. A summary of the policy requirements is outlined below:

  1. All communications from Staff to Board members are to be submitted through the Superintendent. Any authorized direct communication from a staff member to a Board Member should be addressed to all Board members and the Superintendent.
  2. Official communication from the School Board to Staff will come from the Superintendent’s office.
  3. Board member requests for information that require staff time, are department–related, or concern school-based issues will submitted to the Superintendent’s office. A form will be generated to document the request and any response. The Superintendent may determine a request requires excessive staff time to respond to and ask that it be submitted for consideration at a Board meeting. A majority of the Board shall be required to support such a request.
  4. Board members may phone staff directly for information on either Work Session or Board meeting agenda items.

Both the School Board and I understand and value the hard work staff provides in support of our schools and the education of our over 105,000 students. As discussed in a recent work session, compliance with Board policy keeps our district running smoothly, while providing processes and transparency for day-to-day operations.

Thank you for your help and understanding as we move forward into a great 2018-19 school year.

Elementary civics does not apply to School Boards

When you elect a School Board member, you probably think you are electing that member to act as your representative, your voice, and your instrument of democratic accountability over the funding and direction and constituent needs of the public school system that you pay for and use. You probably think you’re electing someone who does the equivalent within a School District of what a city or county commissioner does within a city or county government.

Certainly, I believe that’s what you elected me to do. That’s what I have tried to do on your behalf in the last 22 months or so. I think I’ve been reasonably successful. See this account of how forceful advocacy — rather than bland policy votes — moves the needle on organizational reform. 

But I have learned, almost from the moment of my election, that this basic civics-driven approach to governing is shockingly radical to a massive swath of the public education leadership class — everywhere. It’s not just Polk County. New board members are coached immediately by the Florida School Board Association to act as part of some nebulous, ineffectual leadership “team,” not as representatives of the public.

Indeed, I feel quite certain this communication policy is fairly standard across the state. There is a thriving school policy creation industry. It reflects the fact that the entire educational leadership apparatus in Florida is built around the idea that elected School Board members really have no governing role — and that we the people, as a whole, have no real say over how our children are educated. I’m not exaggerating.

Elected to act as courtiers

The only elected officials whose inherent powers really matter to Florida’s educational direction are the governor and leaders of the House and Senate. They are a dictatorship of three, in terms of education. They determine our revenue, our mandates, and our punishments.

Local superintendents, even the elected ones, are basically regional governors of a state empire. We board members hire our superintendents; but Tallahassee directs them in the most important matters. And Tallahassee often determines their fates.

Indeed, in the prevailing Florida model, board members are expected to behave like the elected members of an imperial court. The empire prizes good manners, willingness to be seen at events, and the willingness to take and ignore the public’s criticism for what the governor and leaders of House and Senate do.

In the prevailing Florida model, board members mostly clap and absorb public anger. We’re entitled to $40,000 per year and health insurance (I don’t use the insurance) for this privilege, which is why, I think, so many people are willing to do it on those demeaning terms.

The public should insist on much more.

There are consequences for this “courtier” approach

Passive School Board unanimity and obedience to unelected leadership has real consequences — for taxpayers, stakeholders, and employees alike. Just in Polk County, in the last five years, the record includes:

  • Teacher and bus driver shortages
  • The insurance crisis
  • The useless impasse of 2017
  • The SIS system failure
  • The LeRoy scandal
  • The Acceleration Academy scandal
  • The multiple Looney scandals
  • The K12 scandal
  • A culture in which whistleblowers are actively punished and loyalty is prized far more highly than integrity.
  • A culture in which potential witnesses to an active sexual harassment investigation can be forced to listen at a mandatory meeting to a sitting School Board member express support for the supervisor under investigation — while the supervisor is in the room. With no consequences or investigation.
  • A culture in which those same witnesses must break board “policy” to talk to their elected representatives about the board member’s action.
  • A culture in which people who save us from making payments on an illegal $1.8 million contract suddenly leave the district with little explanation.

And that’s just off the top of my head. An active, attentive board could have mitigated any of those disasters. Instead, that 2013 policy, I believe, actively contributed to and exacerbated each of these disasters.

I’m working to change this culture bit-by-bit, day-after-day, and making progress, with zero help from the long-term board members whose terms are up this year. Indeed, my efforts are met with active resentment. Just watch the meetings. I am routinely criticized for knowing too much. Really, I am. It is one of the stranger insults I’ve ever encountered.

These three long-term members have shown no willingness to change any aspect of their approach. At least Tim Harris and Hazel Sellers decided to retire and make room for a new generation of elected leaders.

Kay Fields, who is still running, is fond of verbally limiting the board’s role to hiring and firing our handful of our direct employees — and “making policy.”

I have no idea how anyone thinks they can make good policy if the key stakeholders in our organization are discouraged from — or punished for — sharing their experiences and crucial observations with their elected representatives.

Let me assure you: I ran to help govern, provide real oversight, and to protect the people who elected me and the people who work for the public from bad leadership decisions and inattention. That is how I see my role.

My endless connections to the people I serve — and the information they provide about their experiences in violation of “policy” — have been invaluable to serving the broader public good. And frankly, I will put my record of serving the public good and changing the direction of this organization in the last 22 months up against the total record of any long-term incumbent. The public will get a chance in 2020 to throw me out if they disagree.

That district leadership would see connections with the people on the front lines of the fight for kids as something to fear or suppress tells you a lot about where this generation of public education model, everywhere, has taken us.  Only you, as voters, can really change the direction — both in Tallahassee and Polk County.