Rescind the FRS heist: Rep. Bell/Gov. DeSantis, give back the $9 million you took from Polk’s children, paras, bus drivers, nutrition workers, custodians, and experienced teachers

Before COVID, while you were distracted by talk of increasing minimum teacher salary during this Legislative Session, Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, (and all the other legislators and governor) voted to take $9 million per year right out of the pockets of Polk County’s children, paras, bus drivers, and experienced teachers.

Rep. Bell and the governor and the rest of your legislators did this through requiring local school districts to pay much more each year into the Florida Retirement System. There was no need for this increased payment. And this $9 million that could have bought services for kids is now dead money in Tallahassee, just dead cash for accounting.

The FRS heist was nothing more than a spiteful power play designed to harm the people and mission of the local school districts that your rulers in Tallahassee despise.

Any real hope of providing a “step” or “level” raises for education workers in Polk likely died when Rep. Bell took that money from the good paras and custodians of her alma mater, Fort Meade Middle/Senior High, and all the other schools in our county.

Here’s my brief discussion of this from Tuesday’s School Board meeting. It’s worth noting the reactions of some board members while I’m speaking. I think it’s telling.

A resolution to claw back the FRS heist

I think Melony Bell (and all the others) should give that money back. To that end, I will be proposing this Polk School Board resolution at our next board meeting:

Whereas the Polk County legislative delegation and governor imposed a draconian $9 million annual increase in FRS payment during the past Legislative session;

Whereas the COVID pandemic and economic crisis has has put the very existence of local districts and their services in jeopardy;

Whereas that $9 million could have been used to budget “step” or “level” increases for long-suffering education workers across the board;

And whereas there was no reason at all for the increase;

Be it resolved that the Polk County School Board DEMANDS Florida state government rescind the FRS increase of 2020 and return that $9 million to Polk County where it can do good for our citizens.

I will get this put on the agenda of our next meeting; and we will have an up or down vote. Or it will die for lack of a second. But every board member will be on record with the public and our people. Believe that.

Will Tallahassee respond to our resolution? Who knows?

But if we’re going to save public education from the Covid depression, like the stock market has already been saved by $4.5 trillion in federal spending, it’s vital that local districts impose a real and personal political cost for this theft and any cuts to come. The more painful the cuts are politically for Melony Bell, Kelli Stargel, Ron DeSantis, etc., the less likely they are to happen. They must fear the public reaction. You, the public, are our only hope.

So if you’re a para, or bus driver, or experienced teacher, or parent or citizen who cares about public education, I would urge you to call Melony Bell and all the others. You can see their contact information here at the excellent advocacy page that Rachel Pleasant and the School District PR staff created. 

Pay no attention to the $47,500 minimum teacher pay gimmick. The budget was terrible BEFORE Covid-19.

Those of us who pay close attention to Florida education funding and politics warned about this year’s Legislative plan to increase minimum teacher pay to $47,500. We told you it was an inefficient election year gimmick designed to mask the usual Tallahassee assault on the mission and people of public education.

And we have been proven right, again. To be succint: the budget is terrible for Polk County. To balance it, we will need to use the one-time money from the Hurricane Irma settlement, which is a terrible way to budget. And that was before COVID. That was supposedly the good budget. It wasn’t; and it isn’t.

I’d encourage you to watch the entire budget presentation from our Tuesday work session. It describes the usual vast mismatch between the compliance Tallahassee demands and the resources to deliver it that Tallahassee provides. The budget portion begins at about 3:00:00.

I welcome Team Melony/Team Fields to the Disrict 1 race

I’m singling out Melony Bell here because there’s an interesting recent development in the political competition landscape.

You may remember MelonyGate from a few months back. That’s when Bell declared in a taped legislative meeting that the governor should remove me from office just for existing. I am “disruptive,” she complained. After I published the tape, she lied for a couple days and said she wasn’t talking about me. Then she finally came clean and said she misspoke or something. Here’s a full rundown.

It was a good laugh — if a legislator’s call for an abuse of gubernatorial power can be called funny.

So I was encouraged to see that a few people very close to Melony recently contributed some significant amounts of money to the campaign of my opponent. You can go look them up yourself. Two of them are family; another is Gow Fields (through his insurance company), husband of board member Kay Fields and someone who is very critical of my performance as a board member. I think it’s safe to say the Mrs. Fields is also critical of my performance as a board member. And that’s fine; she and I have a fundamentally different understanding of the role.

Like Melony, I suspect Mrs. Fields also finds me “disruptive” to the way the board has traditionally functioned in Polk County. I would agree with her. But I think that’s good; she and Melony think that’s bad. That’s the disagreement.

Now that Team Melony/Team Fields has thrown its weight behind my opponent, we get to hash this difference out in the public sphere and let the public decide. That’s why public political competition is so important. It’s clarifying. My opponent would take us back to the old ways of no oversight; no transparency; and no fighting for teachers and staff and the people who do the work each day.

I would keep us moving forward in a different direction, one based on an active, assertive board that takes its public governing responsibilities seriously. It’s a simple difference of opinion. I take nothing personally in politics, ever, except the effect of policy on the people I serve. That I take very personally. I don’t care what happens to me, at all.

Get Team Melony/Team Fields — and my opponent — on the public record

So I commend Team Melony/Team Fields for getting openly into the mix. Open political competition is much, much better than sneaking around, calling on the governor or term limits or somebody else to do dirty work one is unable or unwilling to do oneself.

Political competition over important issues can also strengthen and clarify areas of agreement. At this moment, I have to conclude that my opponent and Team Melony/Team Fields do not want that $9 million back for our paras, bus drivers, and children. But I would like to know that for certain. I would love to be wrong and to welcome them to the fight for the existence of public education.

Gaining the unified support of Team Melony/Team Fields for returning that funding would enhance unity on the School Board; and more importantly, it would strengthen the political case to return the money where it can do some good for our county and people.

So I’m asking folks reading this to get my opponent and Gow Fields, who I understand has political aspirations of his own for a legislative seat, on the record about the FRS heist generally and Polk’s $9 million loss specifically. Be very nice about it, please. This is about positions and policies, not personalities.

But it’s important that the public know everyone’s position so the public can make informed choices. That’s the essence of political competition; and I welcome Team Melony/Team Fields to the battleground of ideas. Maybe we’ll even find there are some areas of agreement.