A transformative 36 hours. Updating and analyzing the “collaborative” threats made to teachers and staff.

Late update: 

The superintendent and sheriff called a press conference at 5:15 pm. The elected board was not invited or consulted as a group. I found out about it from media and attended. All that said, I was pleased with the press conference. The superintendent made it clear that nobody in Polk County is going to punish any of our people for Monday. The superintendent struck the right tone of support for our people. The public needed to hear that the unelected district staff and sheriff say with confidence that they have coverage in the schools tomorrow. My son will be in school tomorrow; and I feel comfortable being in Tallahassee while knowing that.

I also want to thank the sheriff for his support. He is simply reassigning detectives for the day and not billing the district for it. He was very supportive of our teachers and people and what they’re trying to do. And he seemed genuinely excited for the chance for law enforcement to interact with our kids in really positive manner — talking about career opportunities etc.

I hope people were able to watch it. I think it was what we needed to hear right now from the unelected district leadership. We still have many, many important issues to address that relate to this incredibly important event in the history of public education in Polk County and in Florida. A very big one is how the elected board and unelected staff interact. But for now, I’m focused on making tomorrow successful in Tallahassee and Polk County.

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The last 36 hours have revealed to everyone that the Polk County public and Florida public, which owns the Polk County and Florida public education system, emphatically supports the women and men who suffer to serve children and families in a governance system that hates and threatens and blackmails them daily.

The public is aching to deliver a humane and collaborative public education system that develops children and deals honestly and fairly with parents and employees alike.

I already knew this. But I’m paid to pay much closer attention than 99.9 percent of people can; and I live this battle every day.

It’s much harder for the public to see all of this with clarity. The public just wants schools that treat its kids like human beings so they can reach their potential. All the complexity layered on top of that is bewildering. And that’s by design, from people of power.

The fraud, abuse, and tyranny of Florida’s educational governance system is cloaked in opaque lines of authority and responsibility and high-minded rhetorical bullshit. It is designed to confuse and distract from the fact that data and experience show Florida has America’s worst run, most inhumane, and worst performing public education system. See this link. You’ve been told many lies to the contrary; but they’re lies.

And then along came DoE General Counsel Matthew H. Mears to cut through all the bullshit — and show you the truth about who wields power in your education system. The public became aware, viscerally, instantly, that Florida’s education “leaders” would “collaborate” (more on that in a second) to openly threaten with utter destruction the livelihoods and pensions of 1600 people vastly underpaid and overstressed people. These people — who represent all parties, races, religions, and creeds —  are fundamental to the moral, social, and even religious fabric of our communities.

Learning this, the public erupted with a force and unanimity I’ve never experienced. The public took a side against power in favor of public benefit in a way I’ve never seen before.

The Polk public needs to prepare for retaliation with vigilance

And because of that, I have a warning for all of us in Polk County. Your state government and education system — which practices a civics based on grift and thuggery — is going to try to punish the Polk County public for taking a side against it.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, ask my fellow School Board Member Lisa Miller, parent of a profoundly disabled child and Florida’s finest ESE advocate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and DoE fired Lisa recently from her volunteer position on Florida’s Florida Advisory Committee on Exceptional Student Education because she asks good questions and advocates practically and intelligently for the most vulnerable children and adults in our society and school system. They fired her for it and punished all of Florida’s vulnerable kids for it. That’s who they are. Here’s the full story behind it.

Expect a lot of that kind of thing, Polk public, now that you’ve sided against power. In all aspects of our shared public life. Our legislators certainly won’t protect us. Most likely, they’ll take part in the retribution. The people you sent to Tallahassee to represent your interests are hiding like scared children today — although children are far far braver. No word from any of them about Mears’ threat to 1600 Polk teachers. No word from any them in defense of Lisa and our disabled and vulnerable children.

So vigilance and public scrutiny will be vital.

Corcoran thought he could fire Lisa with impunity; just like no one in power foresaw the eruption against Mears’ threat. Powerful people in this state are accustomed to impunity; so deny it to them. Our best protection as a community moving forward is to make sure that every act of retaliation comes with a public price. Then, maybe, we’ll convince state power to actually collaborate.

Now, with that, here are a few points to think about in no specific order.

An intensely personal decision for which I refuse to judge anyone

When I first saw Mears’ threat late Friday night, I thought quickly of my dad. He was a young teacher in 1968: and he agonized over whether to participate in the great Florida teacher strike of that year. He eventually decided to strike. And the powers-that-were retaliated by making him and several other male teachers draft eligible. Every teacher except my dad crossed back over the picket line. My dad did not; and he was sent to Vietnam, where he became sergeant in the 25th infantry. He was wounded by a grenade and nearly killed during a small battle. He’s lived with the very real effects of the wound, on his body and mind, his entire life. His family almost did not exist. I almost did not exist. My family almost did not exist. My sister, who is a public school teacher in Jacksonville, along with her husband, almost did not exist. Her family almost did not exist.

This rally is not remotely the same situation. This is not remotely a strike in any “legal” sense. We should not even be having this discussion. But people should always take the threats of bad people with power seriously in deciding how to confront and defy them. Because the consequences can be life-changing.

I have always planned to attend the rally; but I deferred any hint of organization to the ground level people on the front lines. It’s their lives and jobs on the line; and I won’t ever be casual about that, in large part because of my dad’s experience.

Various employees have asked me what they should do Monday. And I’ve answered the same way: I can’t and won’t advocate one way or the other. This is what I said to somebody last night:

But bottom line is this, as I’ve said: this is an intensely personal decision for our employees. I will support you in whatever you decide. I am attending the rally. And I will do whatever is in my power to protect you and make people pay for this thuggery. But my power is not absolute. This was an organic movement from our people. I’ve been careful not to organize. I support. You have to decide if you think DOE would actually fire you and steal your pension. And you have to decide the cause you’re fighting for is worth the risk. I don’t face the same risks as you; so I can’t lecture you.

No one seems likely to fire anyone now; but…

Her’s my best analysis of the threat.

It seems a pretty simple question: is anybody going to fire anybody for taking a personal day to attend the rally or to demonstrate solidarity? I asked this directly in emails to DoE and to my own superintendent and School Board attorney early Saturday afternoon — almost 24 hours ago now.

Here they are:

No DoE official nor any unelected leader of the Polk school district that 140,000 of you elected me to help oversee has answered these emails directly. DoE flack Taryn Fenske has answered a few reporters and writers though. She’e been emphatic that DoE cannot fire any local teacher. I don’t think DoE actually believes that because they have no hesitation using VAM to dictate local teaching decisions. But it’s what they’re saying now that it’s politically damaging to say otherwise. I can’t guarantee safety with DoE, but it certainly seems like they want to wash their hands of their own threatening email from their own general counsel.

Here is what DoE flack Taryn Fenske told national education writer Peter Greene:

In collaboration with Polk County schools, the Department had an obligation to make sure teachers were aware of the law. The department does not have the authority to fire teachers, the school district is the employing agency.

The unelected Polk district and superintendent released a long statement Saturday night, about 24 hours after the threatening email from Friday night. 

You should read it and draw your own conclusions. It’s ambiguous about many things. The key sentence I see is this: “The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff.”

The “me” is Superintendent Jackie Byrd.

That is a very oddly-phrased construction, dripping in ambiguity and peculiar tense usage and voice. But let’s infer together: DoE says it can’t fire anyone. The superintendent says there “was not a threat from me to fire staff.” I would like to think that because there “was” no threat that there “is” no threat. But when there’s not much trust — and there isn’t right now — ambiguity becomes a problem.

I can say this, though, without any pleasure or bravado: there will be hell to pay from me as a board member if any move is made to fire anyone over this at the local level. (The only exception to that from my end is if someone does something rogue and dangerous enough that it becomes destructive or dangerous on an individual level. I think it’s important to make clear that support for our people cannot become a blank check for all behaviors. But I’m not worried that anything like that will occur. Our people have been as responsible as they have been ferocious in this.)

And elected board members do get to vote on the unelected superintendent’s personnel decision, contrary to many people’s understanding. That’s the best summary I can give to folks still worried about what to do Monday.

An organic, ground-level movement

Polk’s education movement is leaderless.

It exploded organically from the ground up, from a soil that was nutrient-rich for rebellion. In many ways, Polk has become the pointy end of the sword in the fight to transform the Florida education system. That’s reflected in who the public has recently chosen as its School Board members. People ask why other districts aren’t having this problem; in part, it’s because other districts aren’t the pointy end of the sword in the battle to transform the Florida Model of education. But imagine if we had 67 pointy swords drawn on Tallahassee. Join us.

At the Nov. 11 School Board meeting, two of those newer Polk members — Sarah Fortney and I — spoke about the rally and support for any employees who planned to attend. I urged the unelected staff leadership to consider all measures, including shutting down, to prepare for the rally and absences. And then I was quiet about it, probably too much so. I may have mentioned it as an aside in an article or two; but I don’t even remember doing that.

Other board members can speak for themselves on what their role has been.

I didn’t even hear any absence numbers until Wednesday of this week, when I wrote this article, urging the unelected district staff leadership to communicate with the public or School board about what was happening. At that point, they had done neither. So I did it for them — something that happens far too often in our district.

But by that point, the movement was feeding on itself with increasing velocity. Indeed, the energy and organization driving this in Polk County far far far transcends the ability of an elected official or union or any group to lead it. That just hasn’t happened. Your teachers and staff rose up on their own to show you they’re serious about the future of what they do for your children.

Where does “legal” end and popular politics begin? And vice versa.

People have asked me, “is this threat legal?” Or “is it legal to single out Polk County?” In fact, they’ve asked that about all almost every aspect of this. And my answer is always the same: I don’t know.

I have learned in my public life, especially in Florida, that “legal” is much more a function of power than “law.” “Legal” is what a judge appointed by politicians or elected by voters says it is. On its face, this looked like a ridiculously illegal threat. But courts decide. And they make ridiculous decisions sometimes.

But the more unpopular the decision, the harder it is for a court to make it.  The more people there are challenging power, the harder it is for power to viciously retaliate. Again, this is real world civics and common sense.

Ron DeSantis is a politician whose DoE is collaborating with a local district’s unelected staff leadership to actively antagonize crucial base voters in a reddish county on the I-4 corridor. Why on earth would he allow that? Because he let Richard Corcoran, a vainglorious, teacher-hating grifter, mesmerize him into thinking that firing 1600 active teachers and mounting an all assault on public education “from the inside” would be popular. All in the “Year-of-the-Teacher.”

Perhaps DeSantis thinks those Polk teachers Corcoran and Mears threatened — and their families — are all Democrats. Let me tell you, Ron. I live here; they are not. Perhaps DeSantis thinks none of them are married or related to police or soldiers or business people. Let me tell you something, Ron. I live here. They are. Perhaps DeSantis thinks none of them have special needs children. I live here; they do.

I do not think Ron DeSantis wants to be the “education governor” who fired 1600 public school teachers in Grady Judd’s county  — and stole their pensions — out of spite. But I do think Corcoran wants to be that Education Commissioner, if he can get away with it.

Are you going to let him, Ron?

What does “collaboration” mean?

So what do Taryn Fenske and DOE mean when they say this?

In collaboration with Polk County schools, the Department had an obligation to make sure teachers were aware of the law. The department does not have the authority to fire teachers, the school district is the employing agency.

I have no idea what “collaboration” actually means here. But I do know that the elected Polk School Board was cut out of the “collaboration” completely. There were no votes taken, no meetings about it.

At no point was the elected School Board notified as a group of a plan or policy to address the rally and absences. The communications we received were the exact same communications shared with the public and employees. I can’t speak for individual communications that unelected staff had with elected board members; but I had none after my discussion in the public meeting on Nov. 11.

School boards must stop embracing their own irrelevance

By cutting out the people the voters can hold accountable for performance, the unelected staff and unelected DoE completely cut out you, the voters and the public, from collaboration. This would not surprise anyone paying really, really, really close attention to Florida education governance.

I wrote this summer about a momentous court case that had essentially abolished elected schools boards as instruments of meaningful governance. Full article here. All voters and school board members should read it. It defines your role in your public school system. Key excerpt:

Your School Board gets to hire and fire the Polk superintendent, in theory, but she doesn’t actually work for us. She works for Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Chancellor Jacob Oliva, right down to the classroom level, as our recent VAM experience shows. That’s the hierarchy. If internal school VAM transfers the day before school starts are a legal infringement, then there is no such thing as an illegal one.

The activist judges make this quite clear: in any disagreement between DoE and the Polk School Board, the superintendent is obligated to answer to her actual bosses, which are not the Polk School Board.That puts her in a very stressful position in Polk County, which I fully recognize and regret. And I’m actually quite grateful to the activist judges for making this so clear. It’s liberating. I think it may be to her as well. I expect it to ease any existing tensions between me and senior staff.

The totality of this hierarchy has been true for a long time; but it was always cloaked in ambiguity and nonsense about partnerships and the possibility that judges would interpret the Florida Constitution textually. Now, the activist judges have slammed the door on legal avenues for local School Boards and districts to provide meaningful local input — much less “local control.” It’s bracing for those of us who have long recognized what we face to have it spelled out in writing by activist judges.

A collaborative teacher threat issued by the unelected, without consulting the elected, is completely consistent with what Florida’s new activist judges have ruled. But it’s also consistent with the role elected school boards across Florida have happily consigned themselves to for 20 years — cheerleaders for the unelected, cheerleaders for oppression, cheerleader for fake data and bullshit.  What we should be is guardians of and warriors for the public trust.

I recently wrote about the Florida School Board Association’s embrace of its own uselessness here. And why we should fix it.

As I said, Polk County and its people have become the pointy end of the sword in fighting back against that. I am honored that our teachers and staff and people on the ground have allowed me to help them in this noblest of causes.

I’ll see you tomorrow in Tallahassee. More to come later.

 

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Stephen Koury

    Right on Bill! I in total support and if I can help in some small way let me know.

  2. Randall Mallard

    The point of your sword is blunted by this one terrible fact. Florida is populated and run by folks that came here from other parts of the country. A lot of them are older folks. Their children are grown. They wield tremendous political power. They feel like they paid for education in the states that they moved from. I believe public micromanagement might help in some counties. This will force Superintendents to show their hands with regards to how State law is set up to support systematic dismantling of the public school system. This needs to constantly be put to the fore front. People need to be disruptive like Matt Gaetz at the impeachment hearings.

  3. I don’t think you understand that it was the unelected leaders of Polk County Schools who unwittingly rallied the teachers. On Wednesday we started getting emails and automated phone calls that gave validity to the Tallahassee Rally. Most teachers had not heard of the rally and most of the ones who had heard of it weren’t planning on going.

    Dear families,
    An education rally will take place in Tallahassee on Monday, Jan. 13.
    Teachers from across the state are planning to participate.
    As a result, school districts throughout Florida are preparing for higher than normal teacher absences.
    Polk County Public Schools is closely monitoring this situation. Substitute teachers have been secured for the majority of expected absences, and district-based staff members are being assigned to schools to provide support.

    These emails gave validity to the rally and it let teachers know that if they stayed behind, they would have double and triple the normal numbers of students in their class on Monday. That is when the numbers really exploded. If those emails were never sent, we wouldn’t be in our current predicament.
    The teachers, parents, and students of Polk County owe a huge “THANK YOU” to whoever sent that email and made those automated calls.

  4. As a typically passive educator in the realm of politics, the treatment by our DOE and superintendent that has transpired over the weekend have ignited me and thousands of others alike. Thank you for your strong words and commitment to justice. We are lucky to have you.

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