We. Are. Polk: deepest pride; fact-finding; and the public’s need to converse with its Silent 4 board members

I want this picture blown up, framed, and proudly and prominently displayed in the entry to the Polk County administration building in Bartow. I feel swelling pride every time I see it. It’s iconic, as a friend of mine from out of state rightly said. How awesome is it for Polk County to be iconic in this way?

What an ethos for Polk County Schools to embrace: fearlessness and feistiness in service of helping your child develop.

By the way, that sign is also great writing. Active verbs; no passive voice. Clarity and power and concision. Meaning in every word. If that’s you in that picture, email or call me. If you wrote that sign, email or call me. I want to thank you personally. billy.townsend@polk-fl.net

[So that took like 30 seconds: This is from the sign-maker — and when I asked if I could share her name and school]

Good afternoon Billy Townsend! My name is Gelimar Rodriguez and I’m the woman who is in the picture that Stephanie posted with the “You can’t scare me, I teach in Polk County” sign! Thank you so much for sharing the picture; I am overwhelmed with all the support I am receiving for this sign! I am an ESOL para at Kingsford elementary and a student at Polk State College in my final semester before internship! Again thank you so much for sharing! #POLKSTRONG…I would love my school to be recognized and my incredible administration, Sue Bizerra and Amy Santangelo!

Likewise, take a look at the moment the Polk County contingent arrived at the staging area for Monday’s rally. This video has been shared almost 900 times since I posted it on Facebook. In person, the moment was even better and louder.

I can’t understand how any Polk County resident, or anyone who is part of the Polk District, or any Polk County legislator, elected official, or economic development official can look at that scene with anything but inspiration and pride — whatever your party or ideology.

I can’t understand how anyone could feel anger or fear or resentment or annoyance about it. It’s like we live in different universes; and I don’t know how to reach you. But I want to reach you. Help me understand. Fortunately, the broader public seems to almost unanimously live in the same universe I do.

This podcast I did with Ryan “Teacher Voice” Haczynski in the immediate aftermath of the rally lays out my immediate thoughts and reactions pretty clearly. I’d love you to listen to it.

Fact finding

The superintendent and board chair canceled both of today’s scheduled work sessions, for reasons I find dubious, and rescheduled them for Friday. I’ll say a little bit about that in a moment.

I had hoped to use today’s meetings to begin some precise fact-finding about what’s happened here — and what happens next. But now that we’re not meeting until Friday, here are three basic questions I need answered with precision on behalf of the public and the Polk District’s people:

  1. Did Governor Ron DeSantis; Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran; Department of Education Chancellor Jacob Oliva; and/or DoE General Counsel Matthew Mears order Polk Superintendent Jackie Byrd to send Mears’ threat Friday night?

The superintendent has already said she spoke with Oliva about this at some point. But I don’t know the substance or precise timing of the conversation. So I need a name and a verb. Who said what to the superintendent? It’s like MadLibs: “[Name: i.e. Richard Corcoran, Jacob Oliva] [Verb: i.e. “ordered,” “suggested,” “begged”] Superintendent Byrd to send this threat to all teachers taking a personal day.

2. Why did the superintendent outsource distribution of this letter to her HR director at 9:30 p.m. on Friday night without any contextualization or personal communication as the district’s unelected executive leader? 

Within five minutes of becoming aware of this email threat, I communicated directly with the public, which I represent as an elected school board member, and to our people, as a board member charged with oversight. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook. I thought it was the most responsible and honest thing I could say in that moment of crisis.

Everybody should know that Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and the Florida Department of Education are now threatening to fire all 1,200 to 1,600 Polk County teachers who are exercising their contractual right to take a personal day and fine them $20,000. This email went out at 9:30 pm tonight.

I then published the full email, which was titled: “Concerning an Organized Failure to Report to Duty by Potentially 1,600+ Polk County Teachers”

I then concluded with this:

Everybody has to think closely about what they’re doing. There are times when people have to make momentous choices. I’m an elected board member with nothing personal on the hook. I will support my people — the employees of Polk County Schools in whatever they decide.

I would urge everyone who cares about this to call Matthew Mears immediately. I would urge everyone to call their legislators. Senator Kelli Stargel, do you think these teachers should be fired and fined $20,000.

Why did the Superintendent, by contrast, say nothing in a moment of profound crisis?

3.  Why was there no communication or coordination of any kind between the elected School Board as a body and the unelected staff in preparing for and addressing the rally absences? Why did elected staff reserve all direct communication and collaboration for the state Department of Education? 

If you’ve been reading me closely, you’ll know that I already think the superintendent is almost entirely a state employee, based with on a recent court decision and the reality of how Florida’s state-based school system works. I wrote about that in great depth here; and this episode seems to prove my point. But I want to hear from the superintendent.

I don’t have any good answers to any of those questions, which means the public and our people don’t either. We all need them.

The public needs to converse with its four silent board members

Throughout the duration of the weekend rally crisis, three board member stayed in regular touch with the public: Lisa Miller, Sarah Fortney, and myself. Lisa and Sarah can speak for themselves; but I think I’ve been as open as I can be with the public about my thinking.

By contrast, to my knowledge, the other four board members were completely silent during perhaps the most important moment in the history of the Polk School District since integration. Maybe there has been an event more momentous than a threatened mass firing of 1600 teachers; but I don’t know it.

I don’t think the public that elected and pays these board members has any idea how they feel about it or what they think should happen now.

Again, I had hoped to begin hearing from them this morning. But the chair and superintendent canceled the meetings and then rescheduled for Friday. I will acknowledge that I was pretty angry about that last night when Chair Lori Cunningham called to tell me about the cancellation, while I was still on a bus home from Tallahassee. I may have said a bad word.

We need to analyze absence data

The district said it needed to cancel the meetings because Bartow office staff was needed again because absences were still unusually high on Tuesday. To many people, myself included, that sounded a lot like scapegoating teachers for cancelling a meeting that promised to be somewhat difficult. That’s not a great look; nor is it a very encouraging omen moving ahead.

Moreover, various people with access to the substitute portal told me that the numbers there looked normal. And other teachers pointed out that lasting vacancies; planning efforts; special trainings or assignments also require subs and are part of the normal absence structure — as is sickness.

Anecdotally, I heard no report of anything unusual absence-wise on Tuesday. And I know Citrus Ridge, for instance, had massive absences Monday and was back to normal staffing on Tuesday. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I think this whole episode is a great prompt to take a look at daily absence rates so we’re all using the same vocabulary and can agree on the same truth.

The public wants to save its public education system and the teaching profession

I happen to think the remarkable 500-person rally in Munn Park was just as significant as the events in Tallahassee. Here’s a good story about it.  I was gobsmacked when I saw the crowd pictures. 

As I wrote on Sunday, I think the last few days 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.

What happened in Polk showed clearly that the most powerful elements of their government, as of now, do not share those humane and common sense goals. A casual threat to fire 1600 teachers, for whom there is no replacement, for taking a personal day at the same time, laid bare the reality of what teachers endure organizationally. It helped the public understand that there are people in power who genuinely want to kill the public’s education system, for whatever bizarre reason.

Polk County’s educators and its public cannot save public education on their own. And we may not save it at all. Believe me when I tell you that failure is a very, very real option. The existence of the concept and service is at stake right now. I am not kidding.

But I am proud, so proud, that my county’s people united with our district’s educators to declare they will not be complicit in their own destruction. We’re going to fight. Join us.

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