There’s a very strange high level conversation playing out in my School Board election between me and some elements of what I call “political business.” It goes something like this:
Political business: Education is super important infrastructure; and we need to change how the Polk County School Board has always done business. Why won’t somebody do that?! We’ve been begging for it for years and years.
Billy Townsend: Hi there, I’m Billy. Nice to meet you. Here is that oversight-based change and shakeup to the status quo that you’ve always asked for. And hey, the fraudulent numbers didn’t even suffer. You can brag about all-time high graduation rates if you believe them. Now, can we talk collaboratively about real, lasting reforms and development of community education capacity? Can we talk about how harmful a fake test-based system is to developing good citizens and good employees?
Political business: No, that’s not what we meant, Billy. That’s too much change. And come to think of it, we actually want to go back to the way things have always been done. It wasn’t so bad after all. Your opponent provides that option because he doesn’t have any ideas or goals.
You see, we think nothing is actually better than something — if that something is built around the will of the public, the humanity of children and teachers, and telling the truth in public. Billy, you do all that stuff without asking us for permission; and it makes us really, really uncomfortable, although we can’t give you any specific position that we object to. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that you are you. And that’s a problem for us. (But if there’s something really important and hard we want done, you’re the one we’ll call. And you’ll help. We both know that.)
This is a simplification of the conversation; but it is not an exaggeration or a distortion, as political business knows quite well. When I say “political business,” I mean the political operations of business advocacy groups like chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, and specific industry groups.
My opponent’s contribution list is overrepresented with people who are part of Polk’s political business club. To be clear, we’re not talking about all that many specific people. Hunt Berryman had far more political business support in 2016 than my opponent does today. So the 2020 version is a pretty small subset of political business, which is itself a tiny subset of the actual, real-world business community.
But I think it’s safe to say this small subset is my opponent’s political base. It comes from the segment of political business that has some personal aversion to me. And as a whole, political business is very, very hesitant to openly embrace what our movement is trying to accomplish in humanizing education and strengthening the teaching profession and other vital elements of education and human development infrastructure.
It’s useful to think through why that is, especially as we move into the political business interview and endorsement season. I didn’t win any political business group’s endorsement in 2016; and I’d be surprised if I win any this time. But the conversations with political business are important. They give me the chance to encourage political business look at itself in the mirror a little bit.
A record of unprecedented school board change and effectiveness. What’s not to like, political business?
What follows below is a high-level summary of my four-year record on the board. This is what political business will be considering. You can check out this link for a far more detailed documentation of my four-year record if you don’t believe the high level summary.
Educator pay: Led School Board to commit $32 million to teacher/staff pay over four years. Avoided layoffs, provided small raises, and fixed the district health care plan, which was broken before I was elected. The superintendent and old school board actively opposed this for the first year or so of my term.
Champion for teachers: Fought back publicly when state government threatened to fire 1,600 teachers for attending a rally. The state backed down.
Reduced local testing: Fights every day to create a Polk Schools experience that sees every child as a person, not a test score.
Real oversight of $1.7 Billion district: Changed School Board’s longstanding culture of passiveness. Held non-elected leadership publicly accountable for performance and behavior. Held legislators publicly accountable for their complete failure to support and fund public schools.
Unprecedented transparency: Forced the School Board to release of video of all board meetings. Served as the public’s journalist on the Board and will continue to. Set a new standard of openness and responsiveness to the public, parents, and the media. Never ducked a call or a criticism or a hard problem.
Behavioral support: Pushed hard for a newly implemented behavioral support plan for kids, teachers, and staff.
ESE reform: Prioritized humanity and services – not box-checking compliance — for Exceptional Student Education (ESE).
Anti-segregation: Worked to reduce segregation in all forms through magnet school reforms and equitable collaboration with charters.
When political business groups sit down to make their endorsements, they will be deciding whether to endorse or reject this record. My opponent has offered no policies or platforms other than “I am not Billy.” So endorsement decisions are referenda on something versus nothing. They are referenda on me. I doubt I will openly win a single one; but I might fight myself to a draw in some of them.
Consider the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and its Business Voice Political Action Committee (PAC). They’ve invited me to fill out a questionnaire and to come in for an interview. They endorsed Hunt Berryman last time; but we had a great conversation. And I’m looking forward to this one. When I finish the questionnaire, I’ll share it publicly, like I did last time.
If I had to guess, I doubt Business Voice will endorse at all in my race. That’s because the political and personal cross-currents are tangled and amusing. The PAC itself has contributors on either side of the race. And the wider Chamber’s membership and advocacy committees contain people with as differing opinions on me and our movement as Gow Fields and my wife. (I think Gow is more influential in Chamber life than Julie, for what it’s worth.) Somehow, I don’t think measured consideration of the record and policy proposals are going to make the difference. They might endorse my opponent; but I see basically no chance they endorse me. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.
I should note that Chamber President and CEO Cory Skeates has always been very helpful and supportive of public schools. He even attended the School Board roundtable that I organized on enhancing math and science education last summer. Kay Fields boycotted that roundtable because she found it somehow disrespectful for some reason I still do not understand. Another data point for the endorsement equation.
The Winter Haven Chamber is perhaps taking a better approach. It doesn’t endorse; and it’s invited all the candidates to sit down for a ZOOM interview that it will share. I’m looking forward to that public conversation, too.
Dear political business: please pick the humanity of Florida’s kids/educators over Jeb’s generational failure
I welcome these conversations with political business, whether or not I get endorsed, because they are important to one of my many political projects. To put it simply: I want to convince political business to pick flesh and blood kids and educators over Jeb Bush and his tired old test-punish-fraud model of education that still runs Florida. I want political business to understand that the human beings of the public school system are vital community and business infrastructure.
I’ve been trying to make the business case for that political decision. Political business does not always appreciate this process because of the bluntness with which I make the business case. It’s a pretty zero-sum choice; and I’m honest with them about that. I take a direct business approach to talking to political business. And sometimes, I think that hurts their feelings.
I’m also honest about political business’ enabling role in allowing America’s worst state education model to keep producing horrible results on its own tests and lie about it year-after-year-after-year. Political business has worked for and supported statewide education failure for a generation because Jeb Bush told them he was succeeding. That’s just a fact.
A work in progress
As the conversation above indicates, I haven’t quite succeeded in convincing political business to join the side of light yet. But as the conversation also indicates, political business knows we’re right. My supposed style of communication is their only counterargument against my facts and our movement. So we’re making progress. The fact that this race is a referendum on me, not the ideas of our movement, is political progress. Be proud, Billy Army, you’ve made that happen.
And that’s why it’s important to continue talking to Lakeland Firsts and Business Voices of the world. If we can get them to openly align with us, politically, it will be much easier to stop state government from doing deeply stupid and divisive pay plans that no one in political business would impose on their own employees.
It will be much easier to prevent Kelli Stargel from just thieving $9 million in education infrastructure from Polk County kids just because she can. Political business in Polk County should care about that thievery of infrastructure funding. And I will never stop telling them they should care.
With political business on our side, it will be much easier to get state government to say, “How can we help?” for once. And it will be much easier to build an education system that operates like a business (in a good way), while building strong human beings, not fake data trails.
We are the shoe
Understand, I don’t blame political business for its catastrophic misunderstanding of education because, for a generation, no elected school board member has ever attempted to explain it. Until now. That remains a work in progress that I am committed to, no matter who does or does not support me in an election.
That’s why we have to hold their hands and walk them through the reality of education in a civil and direct way. It’s hard to admit you’re wrong; we have to help them.
At the same time, I think the irrational, incoherence of this campaign dialogue with political business fuels some anxiety about the upcoming election for my supporters.
That’s understandable because our movement wants everyone to like what we’re doing as much as we do. And here are some powerful-ish people (or formerly powerful) making vague personal criticisms that are virtually impossible to rebut or respond to because of their inherent contradictions and lack of specificity. And here they are backing someone whose only platform is that he isn’t me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But nobody ever said electoral democratic politics is rational or fair. And I do not share this anxiety.
Oh sure, I could lose the election. But if that happens, it will be for the right reason. It will happen because I took my job too seriously, worked too hard, and tackled too many hard challenges that too many other people, including political business, ducked for years.
If I lose, it will be because we, together, dragged the Polk School District kicking and screaming into a better place. Real political work for the public good creates friction — always. That friction of action is a mild political threat. But I do not fear it. I welcome it. It’s evidence of effectiveness.
And we’re not going to lose because my opponent comes up with a killer platform or some PAC calls me a child-devouring minotaur in some mailer late in the campaign. We’re not going to lose because political business drops some political shoe. I promise you that.
Indeed, my friends, we are the shoe, not they.
We dropped in 2016 on people who never saw us coming. And we’re a bigger shoe now. We’re going to drop again on August 18. That is what makes political business uncomfortable with us. They’re not accustomed to power that exists independent of them. But together, we will help them get used to it.
Indeed, the best way I know how to address the incoherent silliness of this political business conversation is to point it out to clearly to my friends in the political business community — and then keep showing them how I’ve delivered the change they say they’ve always wanted, but now seem to resent.
And I’m an eternal optimist about individual relationships. I intend to help them political business get over its fear of publicly embracing us. I always think I can win over my sharpest critics with honesty and clarity and fairness. And even when I don’t, the frank conversation alone tells them we’re not afraid of them.