Billy’s powerful record and vision for racial justice, peace, and empowerment

On issues that many individual black voters prioritize in their discussions with me, I have the strongest 4-year record and clearest lifelong vision — not just of any School Board member, but of any elected official in recent Polk County history. Line up the records and vision; and let’s compare.

We’re going to do that in just a second. But I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of real political competition to the health of any community. And I want to point out the obvious: Gow Fields no more defines “the black community” than he does any other community. The black community, like all communities, defines itself daily by the actions of the diverse individuals within it.

Thus, as ugly and stressful as it may be, the racialized drama that Gow Fields has long injected into Polk County School Board politics has a healthy byproduct. It has created serious political competition for the votes of Polk County’s individual black citizens. That’s tragically rare in this community; and I’m proud of making it happen by doing my job as forcefully and honestly as I can. I have no regrets. None. I care about doing my job more than having my job.

Don’t confuse self-protection with unanimity

Anyone who thinks black Americans are monolithic in their beliefs, personalities, ambitions, and priorities has not spent much time speaking to and sharing a community with individual black citizens. I have spent my entire life doing both.

I’ve also closely studied American history. Please take a look at my book, “Age of Barbarity,” which chronicles the fight for racial and community justice in post World War I Florida.  

So I know that American history and political society has often forced individual black Americans to vote as a block out of self-protection. Too often, politicians either ignore those voters or view them as nothing more than a “demographic” to take for granted or campaign against, as a group. Self-protective voting encourages politicians to see voters collectively. And it forces important debates underground or into whisper campaigns.

And it’s why I’m proud today that my existence and policies and approach to governing have spurred generational debate among Polk’s individual black citizens and serious competition for their votes. They deserve to be competed for and to decide for themselves who best serves them — as does every other group of people.

I’m proud of that whether I win their votes or not.

Lakeland is a political competition desert

Lakeland, which is the epicenter of Gow’s one-man campaign of anger, is a particularly glaring example of the mistaken monolith perception. And there’s a correctable, structural reason for that: all City Commission districts in Lakeland are elected citywide.

That means the people of Lakeland’s northwest political district, which covers Lakeland’s largest network of historically black neighborhoods, do not get to choose their own political leaders. So important issues do not get aired in campaigns within the neighborhoods so that the neighborhoods make their own choices.

To be blunt, white people choose Lakeland’s black political leaders.

This is not meant as an insult to any representative of the district. It’s just a fact that multiple black citizens have pointed out to me. It’s why I tried a few years ago to make a mix of single-member and citywide districts part of the campaign for strong mayor.

To some degree, Gow’s personal war on me has become a proxy campaign allowing the people of Lakeland’s northwest geographic district to finally have a real campaign. It’s allowed them to debate longstanding generational questions of power, representation, leadership, and direction that Lakeland’s district and political power structure has stifled for years. I’m extremely proud of that as a politician, a citizen, and historian of racial justice.

I. Want. Everyone’s. Vote.

I’ve recognized this proxy campaign for a while; and I’ve understood that it’s not really about me; or at least that I’m just the catalyst for much deeper issues.

Because of that, and because I respect the agency of black citizens so much, and because I did not want to make a raw subject rawer, I have violated my own rule to some degree: I haven’t competed hard enough for the votes of my fellow citizens. I’ve said to myself, I’ll make myself available like I always do; I’ll take the criticism with a smile; and I’ll let this sort itself out.

That reticence was a mistake; and I’m sorry for it. Competition means you compete. It means you don’t cede ground to the Gow Fields and Will Harrells of the world on important issues. So reticence ends today. Thats why it’s not a regret yet.

I’m going to compete for every single vote fiercely and openly. No matter what you look like, where you live, how much money you have, or who you support for president. Your humanity and the humanity of your children drives me. If that offends you, you can call me whatever you want in whatever meme you choose.

My entire campaign is an experiment in whether we can hold a divided community together through the shared humanity of our children. If we can, maybe we can do that for America, too.

Think for a second about how much money Will Harrell, Ashley Troutman, and Leadership Club are working to defeat that possibility and offer nothing in its place. Again, I’m proud of their opposition.

An unmatched record and vision

Make no mistake, I have much to compete with.

As I said, on issues that many individual black voters prioritize in their discussions with me, I have the strongest 4-year record and clearest vision — not just of any School Board member, but of any elected official in recent Polk County history. Fighting to empower black voters with single-member districts in Lakeland is certainly part of it. But there is much, much more:

Contributing to peace and justice by removing the Confederate Monument from Munn Park

The Confederate Monument formerly located in the center of Munn Park provides one of the clearest contrasts between myself and my opponent on issues of racial justice and shared community.

Ashley Troutman is my opponent’s campaign manager. Troutman is very close to Gow Fields. And if Troutman had his way, the Confederate Monument would still be standing at the center of our city. I gently addressed Troutman’s support for the monument in an essay written I wrote a couple of years ago. You can read it at this link. Key excerpt:

I think Ashley Troutman’s well-meaning plan illustrates this conundrum of location nicely. As a sort of compromise, Troutman proposes keeping the statue in place and surrounding it with “contextual monuments of equal stature and dignity that would celebrate the bravery of black Americans who suffered under slavery and systemic oppression…”

…Think about the outcome of [the Troutman] plan: Confederate nostalgia is going to be sun of our city’s solar system of honors? Forever. The accomplishments of non-Confederate Lakeland will orbit it? Forever. Think about the symbolism of subservience built into that. Everything built around a centerpiece monument is subservient to it, by definition.

By contrast, I looked at the monument and saw this, among many other problems.

And now it’s ground zero for social conflict — forever, as long as it holds that spot [in the center of the city].

That’s because a large portion of our city sees the monument as hostile to them. They have historical and present day justification for feeling that way (see Charlottesville); another large portion agrees with them and does not want hostility as the centerpiece of the city. Together, these groups are challenging a long unchallenged consensus that was never really a consensus.

Events proved me exactly correct. Ashley Troutman was proven exactly wrong.

When the moment of reckoning came in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, there was no symbolic monument in Munn Park to serve as ground zero for social conflict. Imagine if it had been there; and police had to guard it. This was not an abstraction. Other cities burned; we did not. Relocating the monument respectfully made a tremendous difference; and I will go to my grave proud of contributing money and my name to the effort, no matter who votes for me or if I win.

I was the only elected official in Polk County to show up (twice) to speak publicly on behalf of relocating the monument to the more appropriate location with other monuments to veterans. In doing so, I stood next to Gow Fields and others and took a political risk. I’m taking a political risk now, writing about it. I take political risks for what’s right. Nothing good happens without risk. If I lose my election, it will be because I do hard things and take risks for what’s right. I don’t know how else to live.

Perhaps you think the monument does not bear at all on schools. I think you’re wrong. The tangled problems of history and power and race bear on everything, especially schools. And I’m here to try solve those problems, not create them or exacerbate them. Respectfully relocating the monument helped solve a problem.

We did not arm teachers or staff in the aftermath of Stoneman Douglas shooting

In the aftermath of the terrible Stoneman Douglas shooting, there was great pressure to arm classroom teachers and schools staff. To her great credit, Superintendent Byrd resisted that pressure and made an outstanding, brave public video explaining her reasons. I think it is the high point of her tenure as a superintendent.

I agreed with her fully, for a myriad of reasons. Most had nothing to do with race. But we know that the “school-to-prison” pipeline is already a problem; and adding guns in classrooms to the mix means nothing but trouble, as the Michael Dunn shooting illustrated clearly.

And when it came time to publicly debate these issues with Sheriff Judd, who advocated arming teachers and staff, I led the public discussion. I forcefully supported Superintendent Byrd’s position when the political stakes were high and other board members did not.

That public discussion with Sheriff Judd was American civics at its finest. And the state-leading compromise solution it created — the Guardian program — showed that honest, public debate of differing points-of-view can lead to outcomes in which everybody wins.

Brought real accountability to “choice”

Florida doesn’t care about school choice; it never has. It cares about labeling neighborhoods and kids as “failing” with fraudulent test “accountability” and then marketing “choice” as an escape.

This takes on deeply deeply racist and classist and ableist overtones if you look closely at all. I would urge everyone to read this deep analysis of fraudulent school grades and “choice” in Polk County that I wrote last year. It’s worth your time.

I’ve been relentless in my criticism of state and district policies that contribute to the slander of children and neighborhoods. And I’ve worked relentlessly to protect vulnerable children from “voucher” schools, like Kingdom Prep and A’kellyn’s Angels, that are dangerous scams. See this article for an example.

At the same time, I’ve also praised good “voucher” schools like Academy Prep and Victory, that see themselves as complementary and allied to the public school system.

To know the difference, you have to do the work. And I do the work.

I helped change magnet school philosophy. No more using special programs to create segregation by race, class, achievement level, or ESE status.

As a result of Florida’s dishonest and cruel approach to “choice,” every day in Lakeland and Polk County, children are bused miles and miles away from neighborhood schools they can see because those schools are “choice” schools — magnet or charter schools. This is both a driver of segregation and a source of dislocation from neighborhood and parental support.

I have written about this over and over again and pushed the School Board and staff to address it. Here are some examples and successes:

  • I cast the only vote in 2017 against magnet school plan (6-1) developed before my election because of the segregation pressures it created for nearby zoned schools.
  • Because of that process, the district has shifted from tying special programs to opt-in magnet schools to creating special programs at neighborhood schools.
  • I successfully advocated, along with Board Member Kay Fields, to set aside spots at Lincoln Academy in Lakeland for children in the historically black neighborhood who live nearby.
  • I supported a collaborative project with McKeel charter schools designed to allow more children who live near McKeel to attend it.

Let’s create geographical choice for schools

There’s a powerful next step we can take: adding geographical choice to our choice programs. What do I mean?

Well, your child should be able to attend the school you live closest to. But you cannot choose that option because Florida lies about school “choice.” Indeed, the absence of geographic choice from Florida’s rhetoric and law shows how little Florida actually respects the choices of parents. By contrast, I respect all choices.

Geographic choice seems a no-brainer if we’re serious about choice. If you want your child to attend the school closest to you, you should be able to pick that option in the choice enrollment period.

Indeed, in Brown vs. Board, the Brown family was attending a school that was quite nice in Topeka, Kansas. I’ve visited it. But they were forced to travel unnecessarily far to get there. They wanted to attend a school closer to their home and neighborhood and were forbidden by law to do that.

For many kids, that same reality exists today in Polk. I have raised this specific issue at the Polk School Board; and we’re supposed to have a work session on it at some point. But neither a majority of the the School Board nor the unelected staff leadership have shown much interest. That should change.

I did not, in any way, force the superintendent to retire

In her retirement letter, dated May 19th, Superintendent Byrd wrote:

Lately, some Board Members have either acted or attempted to act in ways that materially blur the respective roles and responsibilities of the School Board (policy and budget) and Superintendent (operations).”

Note that part in bold. When it comes to me, this statement is flatly untrue.

That’s why the superintendent has been unable to give a specific example of this material blurring. It’s because none exists. Various people have already searched my emails and texts from this period. I will bring my texts with the superintendent to any forum I attend; and people can look at them for themselves. And the superintendent and I have not had a person-to-person conversation in months. She canceled our last scheduled call in April.

I do not know why she nodded and quietly said “yes” to Gow when he questioned her about leaving — just before Gow said I was same as Officer Chauvin. You would have to ask her.

If you have heard nasty whispers; if you have doubts; call me anytime. 863-209-4037. I answer the phone; and I don’t whisper.

My most fervent critics have one other thing in common. They never bother to call me and ask about the truth of the whispers they want to believe.

I am the most accessible and transparent politician in the history of Polk County. I don’t whisper. I will tell you the truth. If you’ve got a concern with me; if someone’s describing me and you don’t like what you hear, please call me or email me or message me.

I am very easy to reach. And I want your vote.

 

5 comments

  1. Katy Walters

    You have my vote. I appreciate how responsive you have been with concerns regarding schools reopening.

  2. Karen Welzel

    Thank you for all you do for our kids and schools. I’m especially pleased that you have decided to fight back. That’s who you are…you fight for the kids, the schools, the staff, and you need to fight for the votes.
    You’ve got mine.

  3. Amy Royal

    Totally with you; you have my full support!

  4. oops – I’ve emailed you twice recently and haven’t heard back. I think this is a very interesting race and I’m studying your positions as well as your opponent’s. May the best person for the job win!

    • Billy Townsend

      Just emailed you. Thanks, sorry for missing before.