Polk’s superintendent and lobbyist should not spend next week at Jeb Bush’s lavish conference on the bay in San Diego

On Thursday of next week, many of us who are desperate to save public education and the teaching profession in Florida and Polk County will gather for an “Education Summit” at the Winter Haven Recreation and Cultural Center. Co-sponsors include the Florida PTA, Polk Education Association, AFSCME, and the NAACP.

Unfortunately, Polk Superintendent Jackie Byrd and Polk schools lobbyist/public advocate Wendy Dodge won’t be there. Instead, they plan to spend all of next week here, at the lovely Hotel San Diego Bayfront. Click to enlarge the pictures.

The superintendent and lobbyist have chosen to attend a very different “summit” from the one back  home in Winter Haven. The San Diego summit has a very different intent, a better-funded ideology, a much more tourist-friendly view, and probably a better pool: it’s the “National Summit on Education Reform.” 

A kick in the teeth for every Polk teacher, administrator, bus driver, para, custodian, zoned school parent, ESE child…

The San Diego summit is sponsored by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (aka ExcelinEd), which has done more to destroy the teaching profession and inflict the endless test-and-punish, fake data model of public education on Florida and America than any other organization.

If you hate the experience of something imposed by a distant power in public education — from over-testing to VAM to “Best and Brightest” to 8-year-old retention — ExcelinEd is the power that inflicted it on you. Trust me.

Moreover, as I’ve written before, Jeb’s policies have also shackled Florida with the worst individual and aggregate proficiency test score growth in America, if you care about that. The longer a child stays in the Florida model, the worse that child does. Here’s a deeply detailed article about it, with graphics. This horrible test score performance is ironic because Florida only looks at your child as a piece of sellable test data. And yet that data is terrible. That is the legacy of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, as shown in this state map. Click to enlarge.

Thus, the choice the superintendent and lobbyist have made here is an astonishing kick in the teeth for the people of public education in Polk County. Astonishing. I cannot defend it in any way; and I will not try.

I reject this trip/conference in every conceivable way. I have no idea why on earth either our superintendent or our lobbyist/advocate thought it was a good idea to take this trip to hang with the Kelli Stargels and Richard Corcorans of the world when our people have just been told there is no money for raises and the behavioral climate is a stressful struggle in some schools. It beggars belief. And I would not blame the union rank-and-file for completely blowing up our agreement over this; although it’s not going to get better if they do that.

I am imploring the superintendent to rethink this trip; but it’s probably too late to undo the morale damage now anyway.

Who is paying for this trip? You, “Lakeland Leads,” and ???

You — the taxpayers — are funding the lobbyist’s trip to San Diego. I will try to stop that as best I can.

But a group called Lakeland Leads is paying “travel expense” for the superintendent.  Who is Lakeland Leads? These are the key players/officers. Click to enlarge:

David Hallock ($2,500), Wesley Beck ($5,000 through his Aspyre development company), and Jeff Chamberlain ($1,500) are also big contributors to the Lakeland First PAC backing Chad McLeod over Carole Philipson in the Lakeland City Commission race. I’m not sure which of those three is writing the check for Mrs. Byrd’s week in San Diego — or if it’s a team effort with someone else.

I want to be very clear that Lakeland Leads is a different group than Lakeland First PAC. That’s an important distinction, and I don’t want to cause any unfair inferences. But, as you can see,  there is some overlap between the people/donors of Lakeland Leads, a non-profit foundation, and the people of Lakeland First PAC. I’ve tried to reach out for meetings/discussions to these Lakeland Leads guys in the recent past in various ways, with no success. I’ve spoken personally with David Hallock asking for a meeting. But no officer of Lakeland Leads seems interested in the point-of-view of a School Board member elected from a Lakeland district. None of them told me they were sponsoring this trip for the superintendent I help oversee on behalf of the public.

Hanging in San Diego with a woman who considers Polk a “perpetual bottom feeder district”

Mrs. Byrd is being accompanied on this trip by the executive director of Lakeland Leads, a woman named Kate Wallace. Kate is on record referring to the Polk County School District as a “perpetual bottom-feeding district” at the state Board of Education meeting in July. I wrote about that in the article linked here. And there’s helpful video of the “bottom-feeding” moment contained within it. Here’s a key excerpt from the article about Kate Wallace:

Kate Wallace used to work for Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and its sister organization the Florida’s for Florida’s Future. She served as State Advocacy Director and Community Engagement Director from April 2012 to January 2017. That made her very powerful in public education in Florida.

Anyone who follows Florida education at all knows that Jeb’s foundations are the real power in Florida education. They dictate to legislators; and legislators obey. Tallahassee then dictates mandates to local districts, generally without funding. It all rolls downhill from the “Foundation,” as these organizations are often known. The Foundation is the real state government when it comes to education. And has been for a generation.

Kate Wallace now lives in Lakeland. She has been commissioned by a group called Lakeland Leads, which is Lakeland Economic Development Council-adjacent, but not really LEDC, as I understand it, to research and produce a report on the state of public education in Polk County. I’ve reached out to the folks I understand to be behind Lakeland Leads to share quite a bit of information for their research; but I haven’t been able to connect in person.

This is why I decided some time ago to quietly support Carole Philipson in the Lakeland City Commission race, rather than just staying completely neutral as I had always planned to. These Lakeland Leads supporters of the Lakeland First PAC and Chad McLeod aren’t neutral about the people of public education. The executive director of their group thinks you’re all part of a “perpetual bottom feeding district” and is willing to say it publicly and openly.

I wonder if Chad McLeod understands this. I hope not. I’ve never met him; but he seems nice. He’s got a good chance to win at this point; but you all need to know that the people of Lakeland Leads are behind him; and you need to know what they’re about when it comes to teachers and education. Chad needs to know that if he doesn’t. And now that I know about this San Diego trip and the Lakeland Leads role, I think it’s important to support Carole much more loudly.

In fairness, the newest city commissioners backed by the Lakeland First PAC in recent elections have been great supporters of public education and teachers. I work very well with them today. We meet regularly. And I will try to continue that with whomever wins the runoff. I can collaborate with anybody.

But I know Carole Philipson is a strong supporter of public education, a parent of teachers and a guardian ad litem, who understands the urgency of treating vulnerable children like human beings, not “bottom-feeding” data points. If I were a Lakeland teacher or supporter of public education (which I am), I would look at this race as a matter of self-defense and basic dignity. You need to understand what these few powerful people think of you, “bottom feeders.”

“San Diego has always been a coastal city…”

I don’t know how long this trip has been planned. The superintendent notified the School Board of it via email late Wednesday night. I saw the email Thursday morning and responded with dismay within moment through several emails.

I then spoke to the superintendent Thursday afternoon by phone and expressed grave concern about this trip — almost to the point of sorrow. I know what the reaction will be from our people out there on the ground trying to save public education and do the hard work of developing kids in the anti-human, teacher-hating, fraudulent governance and accountability model that Jeb and Kate Wallace and crew built.

The superintendent and I had a confusing discussion about who was paying for her part of the trip. She told me a “community member” was paying, but she did not identify the person. She also implied under my questioning that a group was paying too, and she wanted to be precise about the name so she didn’t give me one. I received no specifics from her on the call about who was paying; and I still don’t have any from her.

I suspected Lakeland Leads was involved, so I reached out to Kate Wallace with an email:

“Is Lakeland Leads paying for Jackie Byrd’s trip next week to the ExcelinEd conference on the beach in San Diego?”

She responded:

Hey! Lakeland Leads, a c(3) nonprofit foundation, is covering her travel expenses. San Diego has always been a coastal city, but we will not be “on the beach”. We will tour two schools of innovation and then be in a conference space inside a downtown hotel the whole time.
The agenda, packed with diverse speakers with diverse perspectives, is here. It includes a variety of helpful and relevant topics in education, many of which are directly relevant to Polk. https://www.excelinedsummit.org/agenda
Kate

There is no innovation at this conference; just a great view of the bay and the same old Chardonnay and lobbyists and grifters of the last 20 years

Understand, there is no innovation at this conference. It is the status quo of all status quos. The people in charge of it run everything — and they have for two decades. They own all the failure of education in Florida. They’ve brought you all the tests and the teacher shortages. They have all the power and withhold all the money with which we could pay our people.

This event in San Diego is about nothing more than power and politics and networking and the same old platitudes. I have no idea what the superintendent thinks this will accomplish. And if this is an “education” conference, not a political one, why the hell is our lobbyist going and not our chief academic officer?

If you doubt me on the shallowness and banal lameness of this conference, here is a link to it.  Here’s what ExcelinEd calls out in its overview for featured topics.

In case it’s hard to read, here are the highlighted topics. They include:

  • Measure and report the quality of education.
  • Hold schools accountable for learning.
  • Incentivize student achievement.
  • Use technology to customize learning for every student,
  • Recruit and retain the best teachers, and
  • Expand choices for parents and students.

You see nothing about behavior. Nothing about ESE. Nothing about mental health. Nothing about school climate. Nothing about integration or busing. Nothing about joy. Nothing about thought. Nothing about meaningful career activity. Nothing but the same old test-and-punish. The same. The same. The same.

Numbing sameness

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than Kate Wallace herself. Here is an article she wrote in 2014. 2014. I’d urge you to compare it to what she said in 2019 to the BoE. Nothing has changed for her. Same platitudes as always. Even the go-to insult language is the status quo.

Yet we keep hearing the same old excuses for why we ought to go back to the good-old “glory days,” when there was no choice, minimal statewide testing, and little to no school accountability. Those were the days when 70 percent of African-American fourth graders were functionally illiterate and we were a national bottom dweller in academics.

And by the way, here’s the actual reality of Florida’s test score performance, as written a few weeks ago by a woman named Patricia Levesque:

It is especially disappointing that after making significant gains, the achievement gap on 8th grade reading between the state average and low-income and minority students has regressed to the same level as 1998.

And who is Patricia Levesque? The executive director of ExcelinEd, the organizer of this San Diego conference. If you read Levesque’s article or you look at the topics highlighted, you see nothing but the same old status quo. You see all the same inhuman, fake data test-and-punish bullshit that we’ve all been subjected to for 20 years.

They only know how to do more school grade fraud

There may be some sexy new punishments for teachers and principals announced. I’m not kidding about that. As Levesque makes clear in her article, ExcelinEd is gearing up to order Tallahassee to rig the school grade formula to create more Ds and Fs and punish more vulnerable schools and people. This is their only idea. They’ve done it for 20 years; and they know nothing else. Again, go read for yourself. (The school grade change is also how they plan to get out of paying any bonus or salary that DeSantis announces for veteran teachers at zoned schools. But that’s for a different article.)

The people in charge of this event — and of education in Florida — have no imagination, no shame, and no capacity self-criticism; but they have a lot of power and a mountain of money. And they have expense accounts the size of my house on top of that. They will put on good parties while our people are working and stressing to meet their fraudulent edicts back home under the risk of losing their $45K per year jobs.

Again, Mrs. Byrd’s choice here is shattering.

Four nights for a one-night conference

A standard King Bed room at The Hilton San Diego Bayfront, with a spectacular view, is $218 per night. In fairness, I’m sure there’s a cheaper conference rate; but I don’t know it.

Oddly, the conference only runs Wednesday and Thursday of next week. But the superintendent and lobbyist “will depart on Monday morning and return Friday evening,” according to the email the superintendent sent the board Wednesday night.

When I asked the superintendent about the discrepancy between conference duration and trip duration, she noted that she’s planning to do school tours on non-conference days. Kate Wallace was far more specific: she and the superintendent “will tour two schools of innovation,” she said.

A) Who wants to bet that’s a private school and a charter school?

B) I’ve flown to the west coast in the morning before. You gain three hours. You’re there by early afternoon Monday at the latest. What exactly is being done Monday and Tuesday other than two school tours? And why on earth is our lobbyist there when the “summit” isn’t even occurring until Wednesday? How does she benefit from touring the “two schools of innovation.” Is she even taking the tours; or are we just paying for her cool vacation? Maybe this bit of content from Jeb’s Foundation offers clue. It sounds fun:

We are excited to host the 2019 National Summit in San Diego, CA from November 20-21 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. We encourage you to come early or stay late and enjoy all the city has to offer.

Screen shot below if you doubt the quote:

I have to say, if this is the kind of advocacy we get from the lobbyist position, I think it’s time to end that position and put that money into the classroom or professional development or literally anything else but this.

Come to the real summit

I’ll be addressing that at our next meeting, along with this entire sordid, disastrous, sorrowful bit of terrible judgement from a leader whose development I had been very pleased with. I don’t know what else to say. This is bad; and I hate that I have to write about it. But this is what I signed up for when I ran on behalf of all of us “bottom feeders.”

All I can suggest, if this upsets you, please come to the summit that the superintendent and lobbyist won’t bother to attend because they chose Kate Wallace and Jeb Bush over you. We can find a way forward together.

It’s 6-8 pm on Thursday 11/21 at 801 MLK Blvd. NE in Winter Haven. I’ll be there. We bottom dwellers have to stick together if we’re going to survive and rebuild a humane and robust public education system.

[Late addition: I’m not against conferences. They are part of public and personal development. They connect people. They often provide good information. The superintendent and I, along with other board members, routinely attend the twice annual joint conferences of the state School Board and Superintendent associations held at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa. I stayed at the Hyatt two nights, I think, for the first event after I was elected. I’ve driven back and forth daily since. I’m not even against big trips, although I haven’t taken one. Board Colleague Sarabeth Reynolds recently traveled to Nashville to tour the academies there. She told us what she was doing ahead of time, publicly, in some detail. And she gave a very detailed account of her visit at our last meeting. That’s appropriate and fine with me; and she’s an elected official who answers to the public like me, anyway. I don’t have a role in overseeing her. We’re equals.  

The basic problem with this conference is that it’s this conference, with these people, at this time, with that funding, and in that place. All of that together is troubling.] 

5 comments

  1. Steve Steiner

    We need an entire school board composed of people who feel and believe as you.

  2. Unfortunately, I am not surprised by this information. Students and teacher always seem to come in last. After 15 years of teaching, I am so used to it that I am not even mad—too tired. thanks for your astute investigative mind, reporting, and dedication to Polk County Schools.

  3. C. L. Boyd

    If this behavior represents Superintendent Byrd’s senses of priority and propriety, I think the school board members need to hold her accountable for this trip and demand a detailed summary of all of her activities while away from the job she is being paid very well to do. Ditto Ms. Dodge.

  4. I think it is time for a resignation. No Assistant is needed if you have time for this.

  5. Christy McCullough

    Thank you. I am also a big supporter who is very disappointed. Unfortunately I won’t be there Thursday night, we have an annual fundraiser so that we can find the money to feed our kids lunch at each monthly meeting. But I appreciate everything you guys are doing on our behalf.

    Ironically I got to attend a professional conference this year, and miss a Friday of school to do it. (I actually worked until noon then left). It’s the first one in my 18 years of teaching, and it was amazing. I appreciate what a good conference can can lead to. But for even the best conference, right now is not the time. And if it is, she should have been ready with concrete reasons why this benefits us. Bad bad move.

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