The FSBA is a Dead Association Walking. But as a voters group, it’s worth saving from oblivion.

In theory, the Florida School Board Association (FSBA) connects the collective will of Florida’s education voters with public education leadership beyond the county and local district level. Local voters pick local school board members; and those board members pool together their influence and knowledge to guide state government (where actual governing power dwells) on how to support and strengthen local schools.

If state government decides to destroy local schools and the teaching profession, which it has been trying to do for a long time, the FSBA offers the strongest line of public defense and counter advocacy. It is the best structural tool available to make legislators and governors fear the aggregated wrath of millions of education voters. It should rival the NRA in its political power and influence.

This is what it should be. Now we’ll pause so that you can LOL.

The FSBA is a voters organization that thwarts voters

This article is about saving the FSBA (and the superintendents association, known as FADSS) from the immediate path to oblivion its leadership has embraced. And it’s about how we can start to create an organization that plays a useful role in shaping the direction of Florida’s education system.

(Quick background: the FSBA presidency is chosen from within membership — from among the Florida’s elected school board members. So a fair retort to me would be: well, ya’ll chose this. Don’t complain. Organize and force change. To which my response would be: Yes, you’re right.

The FSBA’s executive director is a hired staff position. It’s held by a woman named Andrea Messina. I don’t think Andrea has much real influence over the values and direction of the organization. I think she’s more of a services manager. And she does that pretty well, in my view. She and the staff are accessible and helpful in my experience.)

As I said, the FSBA is ultimately a voters group. Voters choose its members. And Florida voters are increasingly choosing board members (like me, for instance) who recognize what a moral and intellectual disaster the Jeb Bush era has been for the humanity of children, the health of the teaching profession, and even test score data.

Those new members chosen by the voters have no organizational voice in today’s FSBA, as I’ll illustrate in a moment. None. There is no formal debate about Florida’s direction or performance. There is no official recognition of problems to interrogate. There are no calls for change; not even meaningful forums for argument or discussion. The people inviting the speakers and organizing the plenary and breakout sessions offer only banal corporate happy talk and the occasional plug for high drop out-rate, for-profit charter chains. In fact, the only true warrior for meaningful public education on the FSBA staff just “retired” to become a “valued consultant.” That’s inside baseball. But it’s still a meaningful indicator.

Growing pushback against cynicism and futility

In short, everyone knows the Florida Model is dead, which is why no one in power wants to talk about it, least of all at in the FSBA’s power structure.

Again, here’s the record, hiding in plain sight. Full explanation of the charts that follow at this link; but purple is bad. And red is bad. This is the FSBA’s record as much as Jeb’s and John Thrasher’s and DoE’s.

Above all, today, the FSBA is cynical. Any educational organization — on top of all else it ignores — that can just ignore these test score numbers in America’s most test-obsessed state is deeply cynical. And deeply afraid to look in the mirror.

I’m not cynical, especially not about a public education. I believe we can change the experience of education all over Florida from a grim anti-human, fraudulent-data-loving, teacher-hating grift to something meaningful and loving and focused on human growth and development.

So do many, many other members.

That was encouragingly clear in the legislative/political breakout session with FSBA Pres. Tim Weisheyer of Osceola County and supposed FSBA lobbyist Kim McDougal, who is on record saying that educating children is like “fixing a car.” More detail on that in a moment.

But for the first time, in that session, I heard real FSBA membership skepticism and pushback against what leadership was selling in its “advocacy” efforts. I think many FSBA members are realizing that the organization can and must play a crucial role in driving change and debate. Real state model change likely won’t come without a forceful FSBA.

What to do now? For board members and the public

And if FSBA doesn’t deliver that; it’s hard to justify spending taxpayer money on dues. If were a taxpayer or teacher, I would be lighting my local School Board up over the dues it pays to FSBA. Be a real advocacy organization; or stop spending my money. 

If you’re a school board member, anywhere in the state, to whom a change in FSBA direction, to whom an FSBA that accommodates fierce diverse debate, is attractive, call me: 863-209-4037 or email me billy.townsend@polk-fl.net.

I think many of you rolled your eyes as much as I did last week; and I look forward to hearing from you. I think you will begin to see structures emerge from the membership level that seek to have debates about the direction of the failed Florida Model. I want to be a part of that; and I hope you do too.

The rest of this article delves into the self-inflicted irrelevancy of the organization. If you don’t want to read any further, you don’t have to.

Why not just light money on fire, Tim and Kim and Kurt?

Let’s start with an almost unbelievably dumb FSBA statement about the Gov. DeSantis/Commissioner Richard Corcoran $47,500 minimum salary pay plan. The statement was released right at the very end of the conference.

DeSantis’ “floor” salary plan is perhaps the most wasteful, stupid, ineffective, and inefficient way possible to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to try to ease Florida’s chronic teacher shortage. We’d be better off lighting the money on fire and using it to warm classrooms when heaters break.

This is obvious to anyone who knows anything about public education and teacher personnel issues — including Sen. Manny Diaz, of all people. (By the way, I’m fine with Manny’s proposal of a perpetually escalating categorical for teacher raises. It’s a state school system. The governor and legislators should own the pay increases politically.)

For those of you who don’t follow education closely: why is the Corcoran/DeSantis plan epicly, counterproductively stupid? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. It ignores the thousands and thousands of veteran teachers in Florida who will find themselves at the same pay level as fresh recruits into the system. These teachers are the heroes of the Florida public education system. They have suffered through the leadership malpractice and harm of the last 20 years because of their commitment to children. They are better people than me. I would not have done it. I would’ve been gone long ago. They are the only reason Florida has a system that functions at all. And this plan, of course, insults them, because everything Florida does harms and insults them. Why. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  2. The highest turnover years in teaching are roughly the first three. In those first few years, taxpayers spend massive amounts of money on the teachers with the least experience and the least statistical commitment to their craft. Early career spending is the least efficient, least bang-for-the-buck teacher spending. This is because of turnover and because teachers get better with practice, like every other person. All DeSantis’ plan does is make the turnover churn more expensive.
  3. Without fundamental change to the experience of teaching in the dead, corrupt, teacher-hating Florida education governance model, $47,500 will not be nearly enough to change the early year churn. It will just waste more taxpayer money on that churn. It cracks me up that trash-talking business guys know so little about employee relations in a big, high skill organization that this is not obvious to them. Or maybe it is, and they just don’t care.
  4. This plan also provides a powerful disincentive for veteran teachers to stay or continually improve performance. It’s absurd to brag about “raising the floor” when you lower the ceiling and crush everybody to death. “I’m 17-years in; my principal gives me every hard behavior kid. And the nice young whipper-snapper down the hall makes as much as I do fresh out of college at 22. And I still have to mentor him.” If you want to keep proven teachers around, this is the worst possible experience to inflict on them.

Ok Boomer, err, FSBA/FADSS

You would think that the state associations of school boards and superintendents (known as FADSS) would know all of what I wrote above. (In point of fact, they do.)

And yet, rather than write what I just wrote and hammer it with the public and legislators, they released this public statement at the very end of our just completed annual post-Thanksgiving joint conference.

Tampa, FL – The Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) and the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) jointly voice their support for Governor De Santis’ initiative to substantially raise the minimum starting teacher salary to $47,500 beginning in the 2020-21 academic year. The proposed increase would make Florida the 2nd in the nation for entry level teacher starting salaries and sends a clear message that Florida truly values the role and importance of public school teachers. 

“We applaud the Governor for making education a top priority and see his teacher salary proposal as a step in the right direction towards attracting the best talent to the state of Florida,” states FSBA President and Osceola School Board Member Tim Weisheyer. 

“We are excited to see that the topic of teacher salaries has finally risen to the level of importance it merits and look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to address this and other opportunities for highly effective, seasoned teachers and other education professionals,” states FADSS President and Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning. 

Rest assured, I did not vote for that statement, nor did I ever hear it discussed, although I did not attend all parts of the conference. Mostly, this looks to me like FSBA President Tim Weisheyer auditioning for some post-FSBA, post School Board role that Ron DeSantis and Richard Corcoran can help him with. Browning’s statement is actually a little better if you read it, but…

Other than that, I got nothing. This is a comically bad organizational position, self-evidently designed for somebody to curry narrow political favor with the governor and Corcoran. Yay FSBA and FADSS.

The talented Ms. McDougal

I wrote a piece about about lobbyist Kim McDougal’s background and role with FSBA a few weeks ago. You can read the full thing here. Her trademark has been to sell education advocates their own powerlessness with a kind of worldly, aggressive cockiness. She’s brilliant at it.

The text book example of this is her wonderfully direct meeting with education advocate Ted Dintersmith back when she was Gov. Rick Scott’s chief-of-staff. Yet again, here’s Ted’s account from his book, “What School Could Be.”

The meeting was short. I met with the chief of staff to Florida governor Rick Scott, who advises him, and previously Jeb Bush, on education. Her staff rescheduled a few times, but she met me at 2:45 p.m. in her office in the Florida State Capitol. Let’s refer to her as KM. [Billy insert — I’ve since confirmed with Ted via Twitter that KM is, in fact, Kim McDougal]

I introduced myself and began explaining what I was doing. I tend to talk fast but after a couple of minutes, KM stopped me. “Look. I know everything I need to know about education. You don’t need to tell me anything. What can I explain to you?”

Me [Dintersmith]: I believe that the more test-driven a school is, the more it puts kids at risk in a world of innovation.

KM: 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.

Me: How do you know they’re learning anything?

KM: That’s why we have standardized tests.

When I started to respond, KM stood up and informed me, “Look. I’m important to the governor. Thank you for your time.” And left. In a year with a thousand meetings, this was the worst.

As I told somebody at our meeting, I think Kim McDougal is great at her job. I just think her job is to protect state government and elected officials from the FSBA’s membership and their voters. That’s a curious role for the FSBA’s lobbyist. I’m not sure why we want to fund it with taxpayer money. I certainly don’t.

I personally experienced that attitude from Kim at a breakout session about advocacy a few conferences ago. I don’t remember which one precisely; but I think it was November 2018. Again, I would describe her as aggressively assertive about how powerless we all are as board members and advocates.

It’s a strange experience to have your advocate tell you how little to expect from her and the legislature, with a real edge of cocky glee. Here’s how I described it; but it doesn’t really do the full feeling justice. And the last sentence is what’s most important.

I actually confronted McDougal about [the Dintersmith meeting] during an FSBA break out session about “advocacy” at one of the FSBA meetings. She pleaded ignorance about the exchange; and then she went on to describe Tallahassee as “transactional,” which is accurate. And she suggested the best way to accomplish anything was to beg and flatter. It’s not clear what she thought FSBA or education advocates would accomplish by that. But basically the entire room full of board members — in a session about advocacy — sided with her against me. I was considered pretty rude for raising the issue at all. So there’s that. 

In short, I think Kim McDougal is very good at her job.

But I think her job is to protect state politicians and educrats from the dissatisfaction of education voters and elected school board members. I appreciate competence in all things. But that’s a curious competency for the FSBA to fund on behalf of voters with taxpayers money.

Some encouraging signs

Fast forward to this year’s political/advocacy session with McDougal and Weisheyer. Everything but the underlying message to members was different. We still to need to embrace our powerlessness, we were told; but their heart wasn’t really in it.

Kim’s cockiness was gone. She deferred to Weisheyer, completely. There was a lot of lip service to taking everyone’s point-of-view seriously and working with everybody, blah blah blah. Of course, the joint statement about the DeSantis pay plan, which apparently considered nobody’s voice except Weisheyer’s, shows how silly and fake that lip service was.

McDougal’s tone aside, the most important change came from the board members who packed the room.

They were having none of the happy powerlessness talk. I saw nobody really siding with the McDougal/Weisheyer vision of perpetual capitulation. There was so much polite pushback that I didn’t feel obligated to get confrontational at all, which was nice for once. (I’m actually a pretty nice guy. Try me.)

No board member in that room seemed in the mood to embrace their own uselessness as advocates, which has been the basic position of the FSBA for the entirety of my brief tenure as a board member. That’s a real, positive change.

And I don’t think that a position of indulgent powerlessness is going to be tenable moving ahead if FSBA wants to survive.

The courts have effectively abolished school boards as governing bodies. The FSBA still has no real answer to that fact.

I did get to ask in that session what I consider the most existential question confronting Florida school boards today: the implications of the 7069 lawsuit opinion issued over the summer.

If you’re a school board member anywhere in Florida, it’s absolutely imperative that you read this piece, titled: “Activist judges just effectively abolished Florida school boards. Gut check time for board members.” The court’s bottom line is this:

  1. There is no defined limit to the state’s power to supersede local school boards in governing directives.
  2. School boards cannot legally challenge the vast majority of state intrusions. This applies to all local governments, too. Private citizens have to challenge most laws; governments generally cannot. This so-called “standing” doctrine is a radical disempowerment of local government by activist conservative judges. That’s just a fact that you have to deal with — or ignore — if you’re conservative.

This court decision, in my view, leaves local school boards with no meaningful power but advocacy. And I asked McDougal and Weisheyer what impact they thought the 7069 suit would have on Florida’s political landscape.

Their awkward responses were telling to me.

I can’t even paraphrase how Kim responded. I think she essentially said: I can’t give you my thinking on that because FSBA hasn’t directed me. But I don’t know anything about it anyway. This is my best effort at paraphrasing her. Many other people heard the answer so maybe they can chime in and help.

But again, consider that this is a powerful, cocky lobbyist with a public record of reveling in informing board members and education activists about how powerless they are. She’s also the “tip of the spear” of school board member advocacy; and she has given no thought to the legal abolition of school board power. Curious.

[Correction upcoming: The section in bold that follows has an error at its heart. The FSBA did file an amicus brief on a “standing doctrine” case involving a school district; but it was not the 7069 suit. I was asking about the 7069 suit, and I thought Tim was answering about it; but we apparently confused each other on the specific suit.]

In his response, Tim noted something I had heard. FSBA is filing an amicus brief with the multiple districts, including Polk, who are the plaintiffs in the 7069 suit. The suit has been appealed to the Supreme Court. I don’t expect the appeal to succeed.

Tim said, in a voice that sounded pained to be talking about it at all, “We don’t think [the decision] is the right direction.” That’s either a direct quote or a close paraphrase. I wasn’t taking notes. And I couldn’t tape the parts of the meeting when I was talking.

I also found it interesting the FSBA amicus brief only applies to the “standing” issueThere seems to be no effort to define a limit of permissible state intrusion into local operations and board authority. That’s actually more important than standing, in my view.

Bottom line, from everything I know about Tim Weisheyer and Kim McDougal, the 7069 opinion emerges from their ideological allies. I don’t think either one of them thinks a school board should have meaningful governing power or any role in state advocacy. So it’s awkward for them to discuss or challenge it in a room full of board members they supposedly represent. Hence the rather tortured discussion.

But that’s just my opinion, based on observation.

Whither FSBA?

So there you have it. That’s my “insider” take.

I think we’re at a change-or-die moment for FSBA. Indeed, that’s not unlike the choice facing the public education in the Florida Model.

The FSBA can either be powerful force for rebirth and reinvigoration. Or it can be a useless series of vendor-sponsored receptions where people try to sell us stuff. I’d really like to try the first. And I’m willing to work with or follow anybody who agrees. Indeed, I think most of the membership is itching for relevance. If you’re one of those people, I look forward to chatting.

 

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