We are the shoe: the strange referendum on what political business always said it wanted

We are the shoe: the strange referendum on what political business always said it wanted

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...

Read More

Transparency and trust matter more than ever in the COVID era, especially for schools

Transparency and trust matter more than ever in the COVID era, especially for schools

Since the postponement yesterday of June 30’s strange in-person public School Board meeting, I have heard and seen this question posed repeatedly: if it’s not safe for the public to attend a public School Board meeting, how is it safe to open schools?  There’s a simple answer to that question: it’s not “safe.” It won’t be “safe.” But that’s not the true question. The true question is: how do the benefits of opening school and the harm of isolating kids stack up against the risks of opening for kids and staff? The human and data inputs of that equation have changed dramatically in the last two weeks. But the equation itself remains the same. We should all be very, very transparent about it. To try to address this equation, I’ve said repeatedly that any campus opening should be voluntary for kids and staff alike. No one should be coerced. And frankly, under the vast mismanagement of this situation by state and federal government, circumstances are currently lurching toward an equation that says: don’t open schools at all.  But it’s not at all clear to me that even if your School Board voted not to open physical schools that they would not open anyway, starting with the 4th grade summer school program on July 8. I want to be transparent about that, too. I’ve talked about these issues publicly quite a bit. This is why I’ve been begging for meaningful collaboration with the superintendent and state government, who are driving the direction and decision-making. It’s why I’ve called for local health officials to address and take questions from the elected Polk School Board. Building trust with the community that its public officials are weighing these tradeoffs with honesty and care is extremely important to building any modicum of public support for any plan. With that in mind, I feel that I need to be transparent concerning some additional background on the district’s COVID announcement yesterday. This bears on public confidence and trust in how the Polk District would react to any outbreaks at physical schools. A sequence of district office COVID events Early Thursday morning, I became aware of a report that a senior staff member for the Polk District had tested positive for COVID — and that this senior staff member (whose identity I do not know) had exposed others. After becoming aware of this report, I sent this...

Read More

Limited in-person school starts July 8 for some rising 4th graders; so let’s see if we can make masks work

Limited in-person school starts July 8 for some rising 4th graders; so let’s see if we can make masks work

In-person school is poised to begin much sooner than most people realize — on July 8th. Masks or no masks; board votes or no board votes; the Polk County School District is planning to begin in person schooling at 12 sites. This grows out of the state DoE’s “reopening guidance” issued in conjunction with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press conference a few weeks ago. Here is the email that was sent yesterday to instructional staff, but not to the elected School Board. When I requested it, HR Director Teddra Porteous promptly provided it, which I appreciate. I think Teddra has done quite a good job during the COVID period. Keep in mind, as you read this email, that it’s her job help to staff the policy and education decisions that other leaders make. If you have objections to the plan, it’s not Teddra’s email, which I find quite clear and helpful, that is the source of those objections. I’ll have some general questions and thoughts on the other side. On Friday, June 12, we learned of Governor DeSantis’s initiative to provide face-to-face learning for some of our students in July. Given this, Polk County Public Schools is excited to announce a July 2020 Summer Learning Program for rising 4th grade students. This face-to-face program will occur at select school sites. There are many positions available at each site including: Summer Lead Teachers, Classroom Teachers, ESE Resource Teachers, ESOL Resource Teachers, LPN Nurses, Network Managers, and School Guardians. Please see attached and below for additional information. Interested applicants may apply using the Summer Learning Employment Application located in Staff Portal (see the menu section along the left side of your unique staff portal home screen). Please note all employees, even those that originally applied in May, must reapply for the July 2020 Elementary Summer Learning program. If the application is not accessible when clicking the link in the Staff Portal, please press “CTRL+F5” on the keyboard and the application will open. Who: Rising 4th grade students at the following schools: Ben Hill Griffin Elementary Crystal Lake Elementary Eastside Elementary Garner Elementary Griffin Elementary Inwood Elementary Stephens Elementary Jesse Keen Elementary Palmetto Elementary Philip O’Brien Elementary Purcell Elementary Spook Hill Elementary When:            Teacher days are July 6th-July 30, Monday through Thursday each week. Hours are 7:30 A.M. – 2:45 PM. Students will attend July 8th – July 30th, Monday through Thursday of...

Read More

What is your voting plan for Aug. 18? If it’s vote-by-mail, ask for your ballot NOW.

What is your voting plan for Aug. 18? If it’s vote-by-mail, ask for your ballot NOW.

My School Board election is part of the August 18 primary election. Key dates include: Now until August 8: Request vote-by-mail ballot. Link to Supervisor of Election request form here. July 16: First wave of absentee/mail ballots sent out to voters. The election begins on this day. That’s less than a month away. July 20: Last day to register to vote in August 18 primary. August 3: In-person early voting begins. Here is a link to the locations. Locations are open 10 a.m to 6 p.m. August 8: Last day to request mail-in ballot. August 15: Last day of early voting. August 18: Election Day Small turnout means every votes counts even more The Aug. 18 primary ballot contains no big-name state or national elections, such as president, governor, senator. Moreover, the COVID spread outlook continues to worsen. So turnout is likely to be smaller than a normal election; and every vote will matter more. Informed, motivated, passionate voters can all make the difference. In fact, I’m counting on it. Advocates for good government, for human-centered public education and for teachers embody “informed, motivated, passionate.” Ask NOW for a mail-in ballot, if that’s your plan But we also need to embody prepared. This year, of all years, voters need to have a plan for voting, especially if the thought of voting in-person concerns you for COVID reasons. Here are some key considerations to help: If you’re planning to vote by mail, ask for that ballot NOW. Here’s the link to the Polk Supervisor of Elections Office portal that allows you to do that. It’s important to request that ballot now because a higher percentage of people are likely to ask for mail-in ballots; and the US Post Office is suffering under financial and capacity strain. Make sure you give time for everyone to process your request. The deadline for requesting is August 8, 10 days before Election Day. But if you wait that long, I would not assume that you will receive a ballot in time to vote and mail it back. Cast your ballots and mail them back AS SOON AS YOU GET THEM Again, given the complexities of this election and the Postal Service, don’t wait to fill out the ballot and send it back when you get it. Knock this part out; and then call your friends and nag them to do the same. Vote in-person early if mail-in...

Read More

A Polk schools reopening/COVID Q&A from a proudly active board member

A Polk schools reopening/COVID Q&A from a proudly active board member

 Let’s start with the two key quotes from Polk’s Chief Academic Officer Michelle Townley at Wednesday’s school opening task force meeting. You can and should watch the meeting above. These are what led to the public announcement that confused and alarmed a lot of people Thursday evening because it seemed to communicate the basic substance of these two quotes as a “plan.” The first quote comes at about 4:15 mark of the meeting and sets the tone: “[In a recent call] the state [Department of Education] did mention that unless our local health officials are giving us advice otherwise that the expectation is for us to open [physcial campuses] in August; and if we need extra help to make that happen, [DoE] would be happy to partner with us. However, we are hopeful that as a task force we can work on those mitigation strategies.” [Bold emphasis is from Billy. Will revisit in a moment] The second quote comes near the end of the meeting and provides direction for moving ahead on planning. It rules out a so-called “hybrid” model. I’m going to come back to the definition of “hybrid model” in a moment because I think it is different for different people. “It’s either full open or Polk Virtual. We have not been given any flexibility from the state for the hybrid model, through instructional hours. We can’t do the hybrid model because we’ve not been given flexibility.” Those two quotes, particularly the second, are the basis for the “announcement” that came as somewhat jarring news to the public. But these quotes were not a plan. They were a basis for planning, a statement of reality, as understood by district staff leadership. The actual contours of an operational “plan” are expected after the July 4th weekend. For now, there is a strange, in-person School Board meeting set for June 30 at the Jim Miles Center in Lakeland. (We’ll see if the COVID spike affects that.) It’s sort of the kickoff meeting for the superintendent search; but Board Chair Lori Cunningham actually created the meeting because a few people said they wanted a chance to tell the School Board not to let the superintendent retire. That’s not in the School Board’s power. And it’s not for me to tell the superintendent she can’t do what’s right for her and her family. But I’m always committed to listening. This in-person...

Read More