Billy’s record: Truth, change, and success

A force for change in Polk

I’ve done exactly what I told you I would do in 2016. I’ve told you the truth; publicly fought for kids and educators; and driven positive change in an institution that often resisted it. Please take a look at my record and judge for yourself.

This is the public’s seat, not mine. You have to decide if you’re better off with Billy Townsend on your School Board. In 2016, I asked you for a leap of faith. Now I’m asking you to make your own informed judgements about my record as your District 1 board member.

Billy’s individual accomplishments and efforts as board member and activist

I believe the following would not have happened without me.

Led the grassroots movement that removed failed superintendent Kathryn LeRoy and led to the hiring of Jackie Byrd

  • Changed the perception of the Polk School Board from a “laughingstock,” as one state lobbyist put it to me, to a School Board on the rise, notwithstanding Florida’s broken model of education.

Convinced the School Board and senior leadership to commit $8 million in recurring money for teacher and worker salaries. Set a new standard for Board collaboration with the people who do the hard work in our district. (See link for background.)

  • Through collaboration with PEA, not pointless conflict, I successfully changed the position of the entire School Board and district leadership to end the foolish 2016-17 era impasse and deliver modest raises.
  • Committed $8 million in recurring money to raises that the old School Board had refused to commit.
  • Restored masters degree pay for teachers that district fought to avoid paying.
  • Ended destructive district relationship with highly-paid, anti-teacher Tallahassee labor lawyers that helped create the impasse.
  • Forced real negotiation between union and management that set the tone for productive ongoing relationship.

Made the elected School Board a force for constructive oversight and accountability

Launched a new era of transparency and public engagement

  • Prioritized service and advocacy for constituents.
  • Successfully fought to make videos of the School Board meetings publicly available at all times.
  • Though public writing, I explain complex, important issues and my point-of-view more thoroughly and publicly than any School Board member in the history of Polk County — and probably Florida.
  • Took public heat when necessary and addressed critics calmly and directly. Not a single word of public oversight writing has been retracted as inaccurate.
  • Set a new standard of responsiveness to the public, parents, and the media. I never duck a call.

Brought meaningful public pressure on our legislators to do their jobs and begin fixing Florida’s broken anti-student, anti-teacher, anti-choice school model of education

  • This helped lead to “compression funding” that allowed Polk to do somewhat better than other counties in funding last year, within Florida’s overall starvation budgets.
  • Harmful, anti-teacher provisions like VAM, the rigged general knowledge test, and excessive testing have been changed or are in the process of changing in Tallahassee.
  • To the credit of my fellow board members, we voted unanimously to sue our destructive and incompetent state government over 7069.
  • Polk legislators are much more accountable to Polk voters than they have been in years, in large part because we’ve been watching them — and demanding they work for us. But we still have much much work to do to reverse years of abuse and neglect of public schools in Florida.

No armed teachers or instructional staff

Polk’s version of the Guardian program was a compromise that I cannot claim individually. However, I was, by far, the most assertive and public board voice in supporting and explaining Supt. Byrd’s wise decision not to arm educational staff.

Created a workable vision for collaboration and reunification with Lake Wales Charter, which enhances offering for students and preserves district and LWC charter interests

The Lake Wales “cooperative” compromise idea imposes the same responsibilities of traditional schools onto LW charter schools. It is entirely the product of my work and thought — and could provide an equitable way forward in addressing the relationship with charter schools.

Successes in which Billy collaborated with others to deliver a strong result

Kathryn LeRoy’s leadership team presided over a regime of unnecessary testing, misery, incompetence, and confusion.  Most of them are gone. The new team, led by Superintendent Byrd, is much better. The scoreboard and the overall  experience shows it.

I’m proud of the improvements and new ideas we’ve implemented as a district. But we have much work to do to overcome generations of state hostility and internal Polk district culture problems.

Intense focus and a comprehensive plan to address desperately needed behavioral supports for teachers/staff, ant-bullying efforts, and services for ESE/special needs children

This plan makes behavioral and human climate in schools a top organizational priority for senior district leadership. All of the various strands of the plan roll up to Deputy Superintendent John Hill. This emphasis is a direct consequence of the strategic plan discussion from earlier this year. It includes:

  • Five rapid response humanity teams teams that will go in to schools to provide tangible help, not high-level consultation to teachers and staff. These teams will be hands-on, problem-solving, force-multipliers
  • A well-designed protocol for action provides a clear, one-stop intake for a behavioral crisis. From there, the behavioral issue is assessed by its nature: is it more of an individual child struggling with extreme disruptive behaviors? Or is it an overall climate/environment at the school? Is bullying or cruelty involved? The responses will be tailored to the problem.
  • An ESE reform plan that begins to move away from box-checking compliance to more focused attention to fixing real behavioral and health-related problems.

Despite the chronic statewide funding and teacher shortage, Polk has created and expanded important education experiences. These include:

  • Expanded physics offerings when districts across the state are reducing access.
  • A growing, countywide arts commitment second to none in Florida
  • New construction academies and a renewed attention to quality across the full body of our career academies.
  • An innovative teacher-education academy partnership with Polk State College aimed at growing our own teacher force, rather than relying on universities.
  • An innovative approach to Civics and Algebra 1 has both enhanced test scores and driven retention. It’s a place where “gaming numbers” intersects with meaningful educational experience. Here’s a full explanation. And I congratulate and support our district leadership team for it.

Polk’s academic scoreboard numbers, within the fraudulent state system, have improved

I reject the state’s fraudulent grading system. I won’t celebrate improving to a “B” district because we don’t control the designation. And I won’t condemn us if and when it drops. I think all numbers in education are gamed, including graduation rate. But until the public changes them, they are still the corrupt scoreboard we must address.  On that corrupt scoreboard, we have improved at a faster rate than the state and districts we compare ourselves to in:

  • Graduation rate
  • School grade points
  • Algebra 1 and Civics scores

Starvation state funding, over-testing, teacher shortages, work climate, and consistency of school-based and administrative leadership remain problems. What our people on the ground have accomplished while living with those problems is impressive. And there is no limit to what we can accomplish if we can fix those problems permanently.

Helped convince 68 percent of Polk voters to continue taxing themselves — to provide for school facilities and maintenance

Reduced testing, although issues remain

  • The End of Year exams championed by LeRoy are essentially dead. I hear many fewer complaints about district-imposed testing than I did.
  • We still do progress monitoring that is sometimes interpreted as unnecessary testing. I’d love to get to zero negative experiences with testing/assessment. It’s a work in progress, tied to the state’s fraudulent measurement, accountability, technology issues, and testing regime.

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

  • 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. The McLaughlin High School proposal is an example.
  • 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.

Demanded staff collaboration with Polk Transit to come up with creative ideas for addressing our busing problems and funding shortfall

  • Together with Board Members Lisa Miller and Sarah Fortney, successfully pushed for an extension of transportation services for special needs children in charter schools.
  • Established regular consultation with Polk Transit officials.

Strongly supported the creation of Polk County’s first wrap-around service community school at Crystal Lake Elementary

  • Publicly defended the school from the opposition of former Board Member Tim Harris

Helped spur School Board dynamism through political competition

  • Four of the 2016 board members have been replaced by much more active members. Political competition is the most vital form of competition in public life. It works; it’s how new ideas become law.
  • The ideas of our movement are: students and staff quality-of-life and support, reversing the teaching and bus driver shortage; better work environment and leadership development; demands for change in Tallahassee’s behavior; less testing; more humanity for ESE students, more meaningful education experiences, greater openness.

Those ideas are now at the heart of Polk School Board discussions. That’s what a successful movement looks like, when the political competition revolves around who will best deliver the same broad strategic vision. No one is calling on a counter-revolution. No one is calling for us to go back to how it was under LeRoy and the old board.

Rather, there are a few people who say I try to do too much; that I’m too transparent; that I’m too committed to public oversight; that I fight too hard for kids and teachers and the staff that does the hard work on the ground. I’m too blunt in my words. A few people wish I would be less active and less vocal and less honest. And the public could decide to replace me because I’m too committed to my job. That’s a decision I can easily live with.

But I won’t break faith with Polk County voters. I told you what I was going to do. I believe I’ve done it. I will continue to govern vigorously on behalf of the public until the public decides it wants someone in its District 1 seat.