The Red Weekend, part 2: the comedy and tragedy of Melonygate — and your leadership class

Let us do some deep forensic analysis together on the language Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade used last week in her official capacity as an elected legislator, during a taped official committee meeting, to recommend that the governor remove a Polk County School Board member from office. Here’s the tape:


In the transcript that follows, note the singular, masculine pronouns in bold. Note the specific, named geography. Note the definite article. The verbs. And the positive desire to be “on record.”

“I’m a believer in Home Rule…but we have a school board member in Polk County, and I’ll go on record, who most likely needs to be removed and the governor has not removed him….Time after time, he just disrupts the whole School Board and teachers and the association.”

Now, please see this exclusive investigative report about the gender makeup of the Polk County School Board. It took literally minutes of work. I think it’s a credit to journalism, if not handwriting.

(Personal note: the governor probably should remove me from office for that combination of haircut, ratty blazer/funeral tie, and weird shirt. That look is an atrocity. I know. I apologize.)

Ok, having uncovered the gender makeup of the board, let’s look at Melony explaining what she really meant when she said: “but we have a school board member in Polk County, and I’ll go on record, who most likely needs to be removed and the governor has not removed him…”

This is from the funniest news story ever written:

“I never said Billy Townsend — it was never about him,” Bell said as she prepared to enter a meeting. “It’s throughout the state of Florida — it’s not one school board member. I think a decision needs to be made from city or county, however, I believe in term limits.

“This bill, I don’t feel like the whole state of Florida should decide the term limits in Polk County. I think it should be county by county, because some smaller counties have really bad issues of trying to get school board members to run. They just don’t have people who want to step up to the plate and want to be out in public.”

Bell continued that she is friends with Townsend, and that he knows she is a champion for education, but that she’s received phone calls about the behavior of some board members. She said she doesn’t understand why he’s “cyber-bullying” her by posting the video of her comments and questioning her reasoning.

I’m trying to think of something witty enough to be worthy of that juxtaposition. But all I got is my old wordless standby:¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If you actually entertain what Melony is saying as something other than word salad, she’s calling for the governor to remove all school board members in the state. And there’s a tragicomic corollary to that.  Activist right wing judges essentially did remove school boards over the summer. I wrote about it here. That article is a must read for anyone who cares about the intersection of democracy and public education. The larger school board — and local government — community remains in denial about it.

Mass firing of 1600 teachers was a disruption the institutional Polk leadership class ignored

Indeed, now that we’ve had our fun…let’s look at what’s truly tragic about this little episode.

Keep in mind that Melony Bell’s state government threatened to fire 1,600 of her fellow Polk Countians — 1600 Polk County teachers — because of “an Organized Failure to Report to Duty by Potentially 1,600+ Polk County Teachers” that did not exist. (No one, anywhere, seems willing or able to tell me who DoE thought was organizing this “failure to report.” Finding out is taking actual deep forensic analysis. DoE refuses to answer me at all. More to come.)

After silence during the Red Weekend, Melony Bell finally expressed great concern in her official capacity about how the board member-who-isn’t-Billy-Townsend “disrupts the whole School Board and teachers.”

Interesting.

So let’s talk about disruption: would firing 1600 teachers disrupt the “whole School Board and teachers?” What sort of social and economic disruption would that cause across our cities and county? How many children’s lives would that harm and disrupt? How does intentionally suppressed educator pay for years disrupt the lives of teachers and the children they serve? How do ongoing use of the discredited VAM equation and forced teacher transfers disrupt the lives of our kids and teachers in terribly harmful ways? See this article and this article.

The failed Florida Model of Education runs on destructive disruption. That is its purpose. Melony Bell either does not remotely care — or is too afraid to address it. And that’s a distinction without a difference. Like the rest of the Polk Legislative Delegation, she participates in the Florida Model with her votes and endorses it with her silence.

So no, I do not “know she is a champion for education.” I see no evidence of that; and I am someone who tends to demand evidence before I agree with your bullshit.

And at the moment of highest pressure and greatest crisis during the Red Weekend, education champion Melony Bell was too indifferent or too afraid to say anything about real world “disruption.” She wasn’t alone.

Euphemism and public leadership

Late Friday afternoon, former Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields (who is married to School Board Member Kay Fields) emailed a letter to the School Board from himself, former Mayor Howard Wiggs, and current Mayor Bill Mutz. I’m posting the entire letter at the end of this article; but here’s the passage from the letter that describes its motivation:

Recent events impacting the district brought to our attention the need to express our appreciation for the great results Superintendent Byrd and her team have delivered. They have done an excellent job carrying out the policies and priorities of the School Board. These results have come at a critical time and it is imperative that we build on that momentum.

Today we are calling on the School Board to support her and her team as they carry out your mission. Please support them as they remain laser focused on the children while taking care of the teachers and school related employees who work directly with them. Your commitment to doing that enables them to invest the best of their efforts into our children’s lives while providing the best results to support our community’s economic vitality and quality of life.

As a board member, I always welcome input from everyone. And I think Bill Mutz is an excellent and caring mayor. He and I meet quite regularly. He is one of the most knowledgeable and supportive local elected officials concerning public education that I’ve met. He came to our School Board goal-setting meeting last year. I consider him a valuable partner, along with several other Lakeland city commissioners.

I have no idea who actually drafted this letter; but all three mayors signed it. And I was struck by two things:

  1. “Recent events impacting the district…” is a curious euphemism. “The state’s threatened mass firing of 1,600 of neighbors and teachers…” is far more accurate. In my experience, euphemism kills good government.
  2. I wish these three mayors had produced and signed a letter during the Red Weekend that forcefully rejected the state’s threatened mass firing of 1600 Polk teachers. I don’t think any of them attended the support rally in Munn Park on Monday. That also would have helped. Think of what that active support and protection from public “leaders” would have meant for so many teachers and families contemplating a potentially life-destroying choice.

The stakes are much bigger than the leadership class seems to think

The Red Weekend plunged our people into a public leadership vacuum, which included the absence of their own superintendent. I tried to fill it. So did board members Lisa Miller and Sarah Fortney, who were very public about their support. Haines City Vice Mayor Anne Huffman and Bartow City Commissioner Trish Pffeifer were strong public defenders of our people during the crisis. Law enforcement leaders, particularly Sheriff Grady Judd and Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia were visible and very helpful.

But I don’t remember any other elected official or institutional leader forcefully and publicly defending our people from career-destroying and school system-destroying threats from their state government. Melony Bell certainly did not. Nor did any other legislator. That was a missed opportunity for basically the entire Polk leadership class; or a clear example of a Polk leadership class pathology. Or both.

I have no problem with the mayors’ letter of support for the superintendent; but I think it shows a deep misunderstanding of the stakes and a curious blindness to the enormity of “little people’s” lives and ambitions and pain.

Ask yourself: who had more at stake, personally, economically, and professionally during the Red Weekend? Our teachers or the superintendent? What would have a more disruptive effect on Polk County? The sudden firing of 1600 teachers; or the departure of any superintendent? Take the name Jackie Byrd out of it. Just look at the relative scale of risk and disruption.

And seriously, if the state’s open willingness to summarily fire 1600 employees and ruin their lives doesn’t illustrate to people in power around here that we’re in a very real battle for the existence of a public education system, I’m not sure what else will.

Government by friendship

I also think the mayors’ letter ties pretty neatly to a curious phrase that Melony Bell used, according to the Ledger: Bell continued that she is friends with Townsend. One note of caution: this isn’t a direct quote; it’s reporter Kim Moore’s characterization of something Melony said. She can feel free to correct it if she wants.

But let me be clear: Melony Bell and I are not friends — not in the sense that I would ever describe as personal friendship. We do not hang out.

It is true that all our interactions until this point have been quite friendly and pleasant; but they were also quite limited. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I don’t think either of us has ever called the other. We see each other at public events, basically. I think our most extensive conversation came when she asked me to help dig up dirt on her Republican primary opponent last election, when Richard Corcoran’s crew was making her life hard. As a reporter, years before, I had written a story about her opponent, and she wanted to know all about it. I think I sent her a link. She did not complain about my capacity to disrupt back then.

It is perfectly OK that Melony and I do not share friendship. Honestly, what could be more irrelevant to this discussion? Would she treat me differently if we were friends? We are not in middle school. We’re both elected officials, representing many of the same people, in serious issues of the public good. Who cares if we’re a squad?

Moreover, Melony is my constituent (I’m not hers), which imposes a much greater responsibility on me than any friendship ever could. Rest assured, if Melony Bell or her family ever has a public school-related problem that I can try to solve, I will do so within the ethical and moral boundaries of my job. That would be the same if she had a voodoo doll of me tacked to her bedroom wall. That goes for anybody. Ask anybody who has dealt with me — ever. I don’t have to know or like you personally to understand that when you feel pain or fear or joy in relation to the school system I help govern that it feels as real to you as it would to me — or my actual friends and family.

Hollow civility, meaningless civics

Based on observation over many years, I think the “leadership class” in Polk County, a thing which is admittedly impossible to define with precision, considers friendship and camaraderie amongst its members as the highest public good. This is what is often meant when one hears the call for “civility.”

Melonygate illustrates this quite well.

In execution of her official duties as an elected official, in a recorded official committee meeting, she said the governor of the state of Florida should remove me, a fellow duly elected official — just because.

I posted the video of her saying this and made her constituents aware of it so they could be informed voters. And rather than defend or retract her statement, she transparently and hilariously pretended she didn’t say it. And then she accused me of “cyber-bullying” her. This is what passes as civility and civics, now, to too many people of power. Abuse power openly and then cry about bullying when you get caught. Civics 101 for the leadership class.

You will also be shocked to learn that I received no letters of support from any institutional leaders — political, economic, government — concerned that Melony was undermining democracy and the will of the 140,000 people who voted for me. I wasn’t expecting any letters; I didn’t want any. I can handle myself on behalf of my voters and constituents. And I recognized this as the political gift that it was the minute I saw it. Trust me.

But it is, again, an interesting window into how institutional power thinks and acts in this county.

The perishable won’t go quietly. And thank God for it.

Board members have received a couple other letters that are similar to the mayors’ letter — one from City of Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donohay and another from Lakeland Chamber of Commerce President Cory Skeates, who I also consider a strong public education supporter and partner. The purpose of both letters, like the mayors’ letter, is to express strong support for the superintendent. Donohay, in particular, praised how she covered for the absences on Monday.

As I’ve said, all input is valuable; and I welcome the presence of these institutional support letters.

But I sincerely regret their absence — the absence of any formal institutional support — for our 1600 teachers during the terrifying and galvanizing moments of the Red Weekend. To ignore those at-risk teachers and then allow personal support for one executive you know to be the thing that motivates your institutional public engagement is tragically small and provincial thinking.

The leadership class has taken the existence of a public education system for granted for a very long time. Schools are just like gas in the pump; resources that will always be there just when you need them. Believe me when I tell you, that is not true. The resources are perishable because the people who do the real work are perishable. Those perishing people are often invisible to all leadership classes, everywhere, throughout history. Polk’s leadership class suffers from the same blindness.

With the Red Weekend and Melonygate, our people have said they do not plan to perish invisibly or quietly, whether Florida’s/Polk’s leadership class chooses to witness them or not. And the general public, who benefits from them daily, has embraced their courage and determination and self-respect quite intensely. The leadership class needs to take note.

All people’s lives — from child to janitor to superintendent — are experienced epicly. Everyone’s pain hurts. Everyone’s joy transforms. Institutional power often suffers from the inability to perceive that. This is a real problem in all governance — in Polk County and beyond.

Indeed, this is an eternal human problem that I won’t be able to fix, even in Polk County. It’s a tragedy that Melody’s comedy unintentionally reveals. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try to impose a little empathy while I’m laughing.

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Here is the full letter from the Mayor Mutz and the two former mayors:

The City of Lakeland has and continues to enjoy an important and longstanding relationship with the Polk County Public School District. This relationship is centered on the belief that the success of our public school system is vital to the economic success of our community.

During the last 40 years our collective tenure as business owners and community volunteers has given us a valuable perspective on our school system and the importance of its success. The last 29 of those years represents our collective tenure as elected officials. We also represent the last 10 years in the Mayor of Lakeland position.

The public school system in every community is the most significant entity on the front line of workforce development. As a result, it is one of the most important components in the economic development and industry recruitment efforts communities engage in. We have witnessed the challenges our school district has endured and labored to overcome as many leaders have called for the bar to be raised and the academic results to be improved.

Superintendent Jackie Byrd answered the call to lead our school district at a difficult time. During her tenure she has “checked the boxes” that are critical to our future. The major successes of her tenure include:

 Improving our graduation rate

 Lowering the dropout rate

 Improving school academic performance across the district’s footprint

 Achieving a B grade for the district and then retaining it

Recent events impacting the district brought to our attention the need to express our appreciation for the great results Superintendent Byrd and her team have delivered. They have done an excellent job carrying out the policies and priorities of the School Board. These results have come at a critical time and it is imperative that we build on that momentum.

Today we are calling on the School Board to support her and her team as they carry out your mission. Please support them as they remain laser focused on the children while taking care of the teachers and school related employees who work directly with them.

Your commitment to doing that enables them to invest the best of their efforts into our children’s lives while providing the best results to support our community’s economic vitality and quality of life.

Here is part 1 of “The Red Weekend” series.

The Red Weekend, part 1: the great and happy re-branding of Polk County

 

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