A battle for the leadership culture and soul of the Polk School District, part 1: the Tenoroc/GJ investigations reveal comprehensive, catastrophic leadership failure
In the last seven years, the Polk School District has twice investigated multiple allegations of sexual harassment against current Tenoroc High School Principal Jason Looney. To my knowledge, all of the players are different in the two investigations except Jason Looney. He is the common element.
The first was at George Jenkins High School in 2010. The second is at Tenoroc High School in 2017. The investigations are remarkably similar.
They both involve allegations of direct sexual harassment from Looney toward specific women in his chain of command. And secondarily, they involve allegations of a wider hostile work environment of sexualized drama swirling around him. This includes multiple suggestions of affairs with staff, based on both firsthand staff observations and rumor, that affect his leadership decisions and the overall work environment for many people.
Both aspects of the allegations would constitute violations of the Polk District's written sexual harassment policies.
The first investigation, at Jenkins, also focused on the behavior of his wife, Laquita Looney, who worked at Jenkins at the time. She was transferred in 2010, alleging mistreatment by a different staff member.
The Tenoroc investigation is technically two investigations. One of the two investigative reports became public on Monday. The other isn't yet fully complete.
According to the first investigation, the second Tenoroc investigation focuses on "allegations of improper hiring practices of Tenoroc staff by Mr. Looney. School financial accounts mismanaged by the financial secretary with Mr. Looney's knowledge. Teachers bullied into changing grades by Mr. Looney."
Today, I'm beginning to address the sexual harassment investigations. Looney has denied all the charges made against him in every investigation made public.
Like LeRoy, but more
Ultimately, the district's Looney investigators in 2010 and 2017, just like the outside investigators for the Kathryn LeRoy report, returned findings of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the publicly available reports. The official phrase for ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was "not sustained" in 2010. It's "not substantiated" in 2017. That's a very different word from "exonerated" or "unfounded", both of which were options in 2010, at least. In both cases, investigators said they found insufficient evidence to verify the firsthand accusations made.
But the investigators in both cases included extensive detail about the accusations and testimony and how they interacted. I find this detail incredibly important to consider. Ultimately, these cases all pit Looney's word against his accusers. You'll find multiple, detailed accusations that Looney answers by saying, essentially, no, didn't happen. Repeatedly, he gets the benefit of the doubt from investigators and district leadership. His accusers get ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The ruining of Brandi Garcia Blanchard
I have long dreaded writing this detailed accounting. But I have no choice. The leadership of the school system I help oversee on behalf of the community I serve left me no choice. The district I serve has ruined a human being with a name and a life. I see no evidence that she did anything to justify that ruining. So I will not be a part of it. I will not condone it. And I will not ignore issues like this in the way the School Board members have in the past.
As you read this, keep this human being in mind: her name is Brandi Garcia Blanchard.
She's an Hispanic, bilingual former assistant principal in a district that has 6 percent Hispanic administrators and 33 percent Hispanic kids. Looney fired her from Tenoroc earlier this summer with help from district leaders, even though she's never received an evaluation of less than effective in her entire 12-year career as an educator.
Today, she can't get a job with a Polk school. At least 12 different schools have declined. Only one has interviewed her that I'm aware of. And the Polk District at first sought to deny her unemployment claim. I wrote a scathing email to staff about the unemployment claim. The district has since dropped the appeal of her unemployment claim. I don't know if I caused that. But I hope I did.
Blanchard deserves to come first in this piece because she could be anyone in this district. Anyone. Bad faith and the abuse of power transcends creed, ideology, sex, race. Weakness in the face of it destroys organizations. And right now, we are, generally speaking, a very weak leadership organization. Weak.
The crucial questions
As you read this, there are four basic questions to consider:
Did Brandi Garcia Blanchard deserve to have her career killed at Tenoroc -- and the district as a whole -- by Jason Looney and top district leadership?
Should Jason Looney, who serves at the discretion of the superintendent, continue as the face of Tenoroc and a leader in good standing of this district?
Why is it so easy for our district leadership to destroy Brandi Blanchard based on vague, undocumented criticisms of job performance when pages of written allegations bounce right off Jason Looney?
What does this episode say about the morality and quality of the Polk District's human capital leadership culture?
My answers are No and No for #1 and #2. But I do not have the power to act on either of those. I can only publicly explain my observations of your district and its leaders. I feel that's my duty -- and why you elected me.
As for #3 and #4, I believe we're in a battle for the soul and future of community education in this county. I need my community to know that -- and help me fight to correct it. There are a number of other very troubling personnel moves I've seen recently that don't quite rise to this level and documentation. People of all races and genders have suffered. And I've seen enough to believe that this battle is the most urgent local challenge we face. I will engage it with everything I have until you, the public, tell me to stop by throwing me out of office.
The issues raised by these investigations, and what I consider comprehensive leadership failure, are enormous and far-reaching. The investigation themselves are enormous, physically. They contain pages and pages. This is just the beginning. I will be writing much more.
Key organizational and contextual points
As you read this, please keep these additional points in mind. They have helped to shape my thinking:
1) On August 31, while the Tenoroc investigation was active, Looney and School Board Member Tim Harris held a mandatory meeting for Tenoroc High School faculty. Tim talked dismissively of "rumors." Tim expressed both his support and the superintendent's support for Looney, while the investigation was still open. Tim suggested anyone who disagrees should leave the school, while the investigation was still open. Tim lectured these captive employees on how they should vote for School Board members. Tim is the immediate past president of the Florida School Board Association. And he likes to lecture me and others about the proper role of elected board members. You can see a transcript of this speech, which Looney mandated that his faculty endure, at this link. I think this spectacle provides a window into Jason Looney's judgement and leadership style, as well as Tim Harris'.
Ask yourself if there's any chance Brandi Garcia Blanchard could get a fair, trustable outcome from an organization in which this happens? Which had already replaced her and denied her unemployment claim, while it was investigating her allegations.
2) We could have frozen the decision to replace Brandi Garcia Blanchard at Tenoroc, pending the outcome of the investigation. I voted against replacing her. And by that time, I had made it clear to the relevant chain of command how concerned I was by the allegations. I had publicly proposed reforms to supervisor-staff relationship policies. Superintendent Byrd and her staff chose to replace Brandi Blanchard nonetheless. I think that was a terrible mistake.
3) When I brought the 2010 sexual harassment investigation of Looney at George Jenkins High School to my fellow board members' attention, Board Chair Kay Fields said:
"And I guess my response to that would be that was seven years ago. And I would imagine that if there was anything we should be aware of that the staff would have told us by now. I would hope and pray they would."
I think that crystalizes Kay's approach to governing. Coupled with Tim's behavior, I think it crystalizes your School Board's approach to governing for many, many years. I think that approach has been disastrous. I have a very different approach. You see it on display in this matter. The voters will have their chance to weigh these two approaches - and choose between them. I'm up in 2020. And there are candidates running in 2018 whom I believe will help banish this passive, indifferent approach to governing to the ashbin of local history where it belongs. Please research them.
4) Morale must be built from the bottom up. When our people fighting the war for kids every day see this kind of leadership from the people with power over them, how can we expect them to clap at a pep rally? I perceive that no one in our organization believes he or she can safely report wrongdoing through their chain of command. And I perceive that no one in our organization believes any abuse of power will be corrected by any leader. That must change. I will fight to my political death to change it. I believe that's what I was elected to do. And I serve my community, not the thing we call the Polk School District. The 13,000 or so people in my community who serve my community through the Polk School District deserve leadership worthy of them. I will do everything in my power to deliver it.
5) If you're a member of the public, please don't throw up your hands over this. Indeed, years of public inattention, including from me, has allowed this culture to exist and thrive. This is on us, as much as anybody in the Polk district.
And still, brave and dedicated people making no money endure this culture to serve kids every day. It is morally imperative that we do not abandon them. We cannot abandon them. We cannot abandon the kids they serve.
To do that, we need to strengthen leaders within our district, and there are some, who want to change this culture. Culture is an amorphous thing. It's the product of positive and negative incentives. There are individual human beings who can transcend their personal incentives regularly for the sake of doing what's right. We have some in Polk. But systems of human beings can't thrive when overall incentives drive bad culture. As the public, and as leaders, we must change the human capital incentives in this district. More on that in parts to come.
There will be many parts to come. This is only the beginning. Trust me, I will talk about this as long as I need to reform the malignant leadership culture too many of our people must suffer. I plan to approach this issue in much same the way I approached the Kathryn LeRoy issue. With consistent long-term focus.
A pattern of sexual harassment allegations
Now, let's get down to the details. Fair warning. This will be graphic and deeply uncomfortable for everyone. Yes, kids will read it, I'm sure. I don't infantilize them. If we don't want them to read about this type of behavior, the adults-these-days should stop the behavior. Kids know what's up in their own schools. Believe me.
As mentioned before, the Jenkins and Tenoroc investigations tell remarkably similar stories with two different casts of characters. Let's start with Jenkins.
In 2010, a GJ teacher reported the following about Jason Looney and Laquita Looney. This teacher reported it on the record, under her own name, to Polk School District investigators:
In August of 2008, I transferred to George Jenkins High School. I was a ninth grade reading and ESOL teacher. At this time, I met Jason Looney, APA, and his wife Laquita Looney, guidance for ESOL. Mr. Looney often came to my room and asked for help with curriculum. He told me that he was going into the Principal Pool and Dr. Nickell had told him to meet with me for reading knowledge.
Mr. Looney started to text me throughout the day. In addition, he called me on my phone after school hours. The conversations were friendly and professional at first, but later Mr. Looney started to make comments which I felt were hinting to meeting me outside of work.
In October 2008, Mr. Looney walked into my portable during the week of the Haines City [football] game. He asked me if I could go to the game. I told him no and asked him why he asked me that question. Mr Looney did not have a good answer for me.
Later that same week, Mr. Looney sent me a text that said he wanted to "eat my pussy" on my desk. I was shocked, and did not respond to his text. Mr. Looney came to my classroom after lunch and told me the text was not intended to go to me. Because I was still mad, and because I did not believe him, I called him a "fucking pig." Mr. Looney apologized and told me how sorry he was.
In February  , Mr. Looney's wife called my cell phone and asked me who I was. Later, Mr. Looney called me from his house phone. His wife grabbed the phone from him and asked me if Mr. Looney called me. I said yes. I heard his wife screaming something at Mr. Looney and then she hung up the phone."
The teacher, whom I will identify as GJHS-Teacher-1, told this story to multiple people at Jenkins, including Principal Buddy Thomas and Assistant Principal Brenda Hardman, who is now the principal of Bartow IB. Thomas gave a statement to investigators in 2010 saying GJHS-teacher-1 told him the story sometime during the 08-09 school year. He said GJHS-teacher-1 did not want Thomas to act on it. So he did not, either to prove or disprove it. It just hung in the air.
Because GJHS-teacher-1 did not save the alleged text, investigators only had her firsthand testimony to act on when they investigated in 2010. That investigation was triggered by a far-ranging email complaint from a woman who said she was GJHS-teacher-1's aunt.
Later, just before the 2010 investigation started, GJHS-teacher-1 came back to Thomas to complain about rumors of her and Looney having an affair. Again, Thomas says she wanted nothing done. "No, I just wish this immature behavior would go away."
On Nov. 19, 2010, Looney answered questions from district investigators about this text allegation and other allegations for a total of 25 minutes with his lawyer Mark Capron present. Here is the portion of the interview dealing with EMP text, as documented by the investigator:
Q) Did you send [GJHS-teacher-1] a sexually explicit text message? A) No
Q) If not you, who sent the text that your council refers to in his letter of November 16, 2010? A) Mr. Capron responded to this question after I mentioned that Capron's letter seemed to indicate that Mr. Looney had apologized for a text that was sent by Mr. Looney. Mr. Capron said that his writing was in context of what the allegations were rather than what Mr. Looney had actually done. Mr. Looney furthered his answer by stating that GJHS-teacher-1 had never discussed anything with him about an inappropriate text message. [Billy note: I don't know where the letter referred to is. It wasn't in the investigative material I received.]
In other words, Looney's position is that everything GJHS-teacher-1 said -- all the detail -- about the alleged EMP text and subsequent confrontation is an elaborately constructed falsehood.
A second issue highlighted the experience of someone I'll call GJHS-teacher-2, who got into a confrontation with Laquita Looney over a text GJHS-teacher-2 sent to Jason Looney. Everyone agrees that text existed. They disagree on what it said. It was either: "Good morning sexy." or "Call me when you wake up, I want to suck your big black dick."
That choice comes from the testimony of someone I'll call GJHS-teacher-3, who told investigators on the record with his own name that Laquita Looney came to visit him to ask about GJHS-teacher-2. Laquita Looney told GJHS-teacher-3 that Jason Looney had received the more explicit SYD text from GJHS-teacher-2.
When questioned by investigators, Laquita Looney denied saying this to GJHS-teacher-3. The Looneys and GJHS-teacher-2 all took the position that the text said "Good Morning Sexy" and was accidental. Their position is that GJHS-teacher-3's account is another elaborately constructed lie.
With the importance of credibility in mind, this is an interesting and relevant exchange between the investigator and Laquita Looney. The brackets are my insertion.
... I reminded Mrs. Johnson-Looney that during our October 6, 2010 interview I asked her if she had ever called or texted [GJHS-teacher-2] for any reason and that she (Johnson-Looney) at that time denied ever communicating with [GJHS-teacher-2] in any manner. I asked why she had not disclosed her text communication with [GJHS-teacher-2] during our first interview. Mrs. Johnson-Looney said she responded as she did because the question on October 6, 2010 was posed with the adjective "threatening." Mrs. Johnson-Looney said I had asked the question of had she ever texted or communicated with [GJHS-teacher-2] in a manner that could be perceived as threatening so she replied that she had not.
The Jenkins witness list sprawled far beyond the Looneys and these three people. The wider picture they provided is a school full of sexual rumor and backbiting built around the Looneys. The whole thing feels as immature as the worst stereotypes of a sixth grade lunch room, but with adults. You should read it.
Ultimately, the district's Looney investigator, just like the outside investigators for the Kathryn LeRoy report, returned a finding of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ -- not sustained.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was enough for Looney to avoid any form of documented discipline. There is no evidence that he was even counseled informally by any superior. He stayed on track for promotion to principal. And Kathryn LeRoy hired him to take over Tenoroc on 2012. GJHS-teacher-1 and GJHS-teacher-3 left our district. I'm told GJHS-teacher-2 is still here.
I see no evidence that district or GJHS leadership did anything to meaningfully confront Looney's alleged behavior -- or the wider sexualized drama at the school. I see no evidence they even mentioned the investigation to him. I see no evidence they sought to discern the truth and act on it. And I wonder if any "leader" anywhere had sat Jason Looney down and chewed him out about this if we'd be having this conversation today. Autonomy without leadership is useless.
"You're so beautiful. I can't believe your husband left you."
In early July of this year, I began receiving anguished messages from teachers, staff, and students at Tenoroc concerning the firing of an assistant principal. They all raved about how hard she worked and how deeply she cared. They felt she was the victim of a terrible injustice that would also harm kids. They urged me to speak with her.
So I did. Brandi Garcia Blanchard told me a horror story about the sexualized abuse of power within an organization that I have a role in overseeing. She told me that Looney once said to her at her place of work, "You're so beautiful, I can't believe your husband left you." She said he talked about male enhancement products at her place of work and his "sweaty balls."
"[Blanchard] stated that her response to his comments, she stated she just "politely" said, "Thank you." Ms. Blanchard stated that she is a single mom and she did not want to cause an issue with her boss." [Billy note: this odd phrasing is how it reads in the report.]
In an effort to get him to stop talking to her in that way, at her place of work, Blanchard said she eventually told Looney, "I think there's a place in hell for people who cheat on their spouses."
Not long after that, she was on a performance improvement plan. By the end of this school year, she was fired, despite never having a rating of less than effective in her entire 12-year career as a Polk educator. The investigative report essentially repeats that narrative with more detail in some places and less in others.
Looney denies saying anything about Blanchard's looks. He says he doesn't remember her remark about infidelity. Looney did say this, according to the report:
"Mr. Looney stated that he was aware that Ms. Blanchard had issues with her husband and at times the conversations "got nasty" (i.e. bad). Mr. Looney stated that he commented "why would you put up with that?" But he never said anything to her about her looks. Mr. Looney stated that his wife commented to him regarding how short Ms. Blanchard's skirt was at a football game. He stated he didn't address it but he should have."
We are not considering rumors here. Blanchard offers direct eyewitness accounts. You either believe they are true or not. Just as you believe the EMP/SYD texts and confrontations at Jenkins are elaborately constructed lies -- or not. Those are the only choices Looney's testimony allows you. I believe Blanchard.
In the background of all this was Looney's relationship with another assistant principal named Summer Fisher, who came to Tenoroc five years ago from Jenkins as reading coach. She was apparently personally screened by Jackie Byrd, before she became superintendent, and Jackie Bowen. Fisher and Looney know each other from Jenkins; but Fisher is not named in the Jenkins report on the Looneys.
"Ms. Fisher stated that she was asked to come to Tenoroc...She stated she was screened for the position by Superintendent Byrd and Associate Superintendent Jackie Bowen. She was not brought to the school by Mr. Looney, although he did recommend her. Last year, everyone was welcoming to her in her new role of AP. After a few weeks of school Ms. Fisher stated that she was concerned about the way Ms. Blanchard spoke to students. She never said anything directly to Ms. Blachard about it. Instead, she discussed it with Mr. Looney."
This concern was never documented in any disciplinary form, ever. Blanchard was rated a highly effective dean and then an effective AP, even by Looney.
The report indicates it was widely rumored at the school that Looney and Fisher were having an affair -- based on staff observation and talk. There were two specific incidents cited in the report:
1. A teacher I'm going to call Roc-teacher-1 stated she saw Fisher and Looney engaged in what appeared to be oral sex on campus during the summer of 2014, when the school was thought to be closed for repairs. And she provided a detailed account of what she saw. Here's a small excerpt:
"She stated that she walked past a room on her way to the restroom she happened to look back to the door and Ms. Fisher was sitting in a chair in very close proximity to Mr. Looney. Her head/face was at the level of Mr. Looney's pelvic area. [Roc-teacher-1] stated both Mr. Looney and Ms. Fisher were clothed. It appeared to her they were engaged in oral sex. When asked [Roc-teacher-1] stated that she did not see Mr. Looney's penis or buttocks. [Roc-teacher-1] stated that after seeing this, she was mortified and she kept walking to the restroom. She stated she felt as though she had done something wrong."
2. Fisher and Looney were seen leaving the 2017 prom together from Orlando. A teacher I'll call Roc-teacher-2 told investigators that "students were asking her if Mr. Looney and Ms. Fisher were dating."
Fisher and Looney deny all allegations of romantic or sexual activity of any kind. Fisher acknowledged, however, that she and Looney left the prom together. She insisted it was innocent.
"She did state that Mr. Looney gave her a ride home from Tenoroc's prom in 2017. He dropped her off at [a Tenoroc colleague's] home in Lakeland, the prom was at the Marriott in Orlando. Her care was parked at [the Tenoroc colleague's] home. She rode with Mr. Looney because some staff were staying at the hotel and some had already left."
Looney seems not to have been asked about the prom incident.
Much of the investigative report focuses on the tension between Blanchard and Fisher, which revolved around the freshman academy at Tenoroc. Looney eventually barred Blanchard from even setting foot in the freshman academy -- and then criticized her for not responding to calls. There are a lot of charges and counter-charges that are difficult to sort out with any certainty. But no one, on either side, disputes that Fisher rose in Looney's favor and Blanchard fell.
The situation is further complicated by what looks like a bitter civil war at Tenoroc between people loyal to former principal Earnest Joe and those loyal to Looney. Our kids have no time for civil wars within our schools. So I don't either. The civil war needs to stop. But it's clear that Looney, Fisher, and their supporters have been winning it until now, with the full support of top district leadership.
"A very serious HR problem at Tenoroc"
To recap the human cost of this: Brandi Garcia Blanchard's career was in ascendance for this district until she ran afoul of Jason Looney and Summer Fisher and the leadership and HR apparatus that supported them. And then it just ended. Her career is utterly ruined for now. She and her children, one of whom attends Tenoroc, are suffering, right now. That is all fact. The only question is whether she deserved it. I see no evidence that she did. I urge her reinstatement, although I have no power to order it.
On July 10, after much research and many conversations, I sent an email to HR titled: "A very serious HR problem at Ten[o]roc." (I very stupidly misspelled Tenoroc as Teneroc for a while. If you want to check my emails, which I'm happy for people to do, you'll need to ask for both.)
Someone must have forwarded the email to Board Member Tim Harris, who today claims he was unaware of any sexual harassment investigation of Looney's behavior toward Blanchard as late as August 31. Harris provided a reply all response to my forwarded July 10 email. Here is what he wrote:
Since this involves a district 7 school, Tenoroc High School, I wonder why Ms. Blanchard didn't reach out to me?
Tim Harris The School Board of Polk County, District 7 Florida School Boards Association, President 2016-2017
Tim sent that email mentioning Brandi Blanchard by name in July. I'll let you reconcile that response with his assertion that he knew nothing about any investigation when he went to speak to Tenoroc's captive faculty with Looney present on August 31.
I did not answer Tim's email. I think doing do so would have violated Florida's Sunshine Laws.
And that email is especially interesting considering this passage from the investigation released on Monday:
Mr. Looney stated that throughout the school year (2016-17) he had concerns about Ms. Blanchard's performance. He stated that he talked about the concerns throughout the year with his regional Regional Assistant Superintendent, Tami Dawson, Regional Assistant Superintendent Tony Bellamy and School Board Member Tim Harris.
Note the very last part. Looney says he was talking to Tim Harris about Blanchard before he fired Blanchard. Before I ever heard of her. I'll be asking Tim about this at today's meeting.
A terrible mistake to learn from
I also copied Tami Dawson on my "HR problem" email. She's the area superintendent who oversees Tenoroc. She's the former principal of Lake Gibson High School. She responded with this:
Hi Everyone, I am currently away on vacation for the week and would be willing to touch base if needed. Mrs. Blanchard was placed on a development plan due to issues occurring this school year(and the last). I met with her along with Mr. Looney. Two issues were not responding to emergency situations involving students and not being visible in highly populated student areas (just not showing up for either). There were quite a few more and I can elaborate further if needed. Mrs. Blanchard did not show improvement based on what Mr. Looney asked her to do. He and I both conferred with Mr. Warren throughout the process. Thank you, Tami
["Mr. Warren" is Brian Warren, the number two official in our HR department.]
In reality, the only instance of written discipline of any kind cited in the report is a written confirmation of a disciplinary conversation with Looney related to a fight that she did not respond to. Blanchard actually provided this to me herself. She said she did not hear the fight call on her radio while in a working lunch with faculty on a school-related activity.
Dawson's response immediately set off massive alarm bells for me. It elevated this to a systemic concern. I had not yet read the 2010 Looney/Jenkins report at that time, so the full scope of multi-year district leadership deference to Looney wasn't yet clear to me. But this began to suggest it. Apparently, our leadership will buy whatever he says without a hint of critical thinking.
Indeed, I have asked around about Blanchard, to current and former Polk colleagues, who don't work at Tenoroc. Not one of them described the combative shirker that Dawson or Fisher or Looney describes. One official, who has occasion to work with many administrators at different schools, said Blanchard is more industrious in his experience than many -- if not most. I'm not sure why no one else bothered to.
Here's an interesting example of Blanchard's work behavior, which clashed with Looney's: At the end of the 2015 school year, when she was still a dean, Blanchard sent Tenoroc staff an anonymous survey, asking for their input on her performance and areas for improvement. (That's what I want from our administrators, by the way.)
When Looney became aware of this survey, he ordered Blanchard to recall it.
"I need to discuss this with you tomorrow morning," Looney wrote.
The next morning, Blanchard told me, Looney chewed her out and said he did not want to know staff's thoughts on leadership performance. It's another window into leadership style and approach to the job -- both for Blanchard and Looney.
Blanchard said she wanted to meet with Tami Dawson one-on-one to talk about Looney and explain the fight incident. But Dawson denied her that chance. In fact, Blanchard thought Dawson had agreed to such a meeting, only to find Looney sitting with Dawson when she arrived.
"What did you want to talk about?" Dawson said, according to Blanchard.
Blanchard said she told investigators this story during her multi-hour interview. But it does not appear in the report. She said it would be easy for someone to check her email to see if she requested such a meeting. I plan to.
If Dawson did what Blanchard describes, it's abysmal leadership performance. I also happen to think Dawson is a solid administrator, based on observation outside of this instance. But this instance is disastrous. I hope she will own it and learn from it. I hope all of our leaders will. I don't demand heads for mistakes, because I make them too. I do demand that we learn from mistakes and improve.
In the course of declaring ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, the 2010 Jenkins report also provided this ominous note:
Investigator's note: During the course of this investigation several of the persons who were interviewed expressed great concern that they would be retaliated against by either Mr. or Mrs. Looney in some fashion for their testimony.
This has relevance to the Tenoroc investigation. You see fears of retaliation and fears of Looney becoming aware of testimony all through it.
On August 1, I sent an email to staff and the Tenoroc investigator that forwarded a complaint from a Tenoroc teacher about retaliation. This took the form of disruptive and counterproductive class scheduling by Looney and Fisher. It was perceived that they were trying to set up a critic to fail by not allowing ninth graders into a class. There are technical reasons why this would be the case.
The Polk Education Association filed a grievance on this calling it "retaliation." The hearing was held Wednesday. The ruling has not come back yet.
That evidence in that grievance did not include an email that Looney sent to district leadership on July 23 attacking this teacher by name and at length. This email identified her as the prime source of the "rumors" addressed in the overall investigation. That email went to Jackie Byrd and Tami Dawson and other leadership weeks before the alleged retaliation occurred. It seems like credible evidence of motive to me.
Furthermore, in considering whether Looney's leadership style is capable of retaliation, you might do well to consider a recent incident that no one disputes happened.
Tim Harris should resign
As mentioned before, on Thursday, August 31, while the investigation was still active, Looney officiated a mandatory, all-faculty meeting at Tenoroc. During this meeting, School Board Member Tim Harris gave a full-throated endorsement of Looney. And he said the superintendent felt the same. Jackie Byrd has not commented on Harris' assertion about her position.
The audience of faculty included actual and potential witnesses in the ongoing Tenoroc investigations.
Using a personal anecdote, Harris suggested to the captive faculty they should accept Looney's "paradigm" or move on. Tami Dawson also attended this meeting, but sat silently and declined to speak, I'm told. It was the appropriate thing for her to do. That was a terrible spot for her.
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Harris lectured the captive Tenoroc faculty about many things, including how they need to vote in the future. Specifically, he said they need to vote against people who had not served on some kind of corporate or major non-profit board. That's a thinly veiled reference at me. It's identical to an argument my opponent made against me in the election last year. Harris made several other such thinly veiled references. I couldn't care less what he says about me; but I want to make it clear that the Tenoroc faculty knew he was attacking me, which means he was attacking them if they supported me politically or came to me with concerns about Looney. That's completely unacceptable. I'll post the transcript again at the bottom of this so you can judge for yourselves.
For what it's worth, I actually lead a national team for one of the planet's largest and most well-known business services firms. I know something about management in a major corporate environment. I will be talking about the difference between a real corporate environment and Tim's fantasies in part 2.
I should be honest and tell you that I consider Tim's speech the single stupidest, most morally counterproductive official act I've ever seen from a local elected official. And he is the immediate past president of the Florida School Board Association. That fact beautifully encapsulates the utter malignant dysfunction of Florida's educational leadership structure. If Tim had any shred of decency or professional shame, he would resign from the Polk School Board.
But opinions can differ.
Jason Looney thought this meeting and its content was a good idea. What does that say about him as a leader?
Again, as an elected board member, you are reading the sum of the power that I have to shape the outcome of this. All I can do is to speak honestly to you about what I see and what I think should happen. So here it is.
First, I want Brandi Blanchard's name cleared. I want her re-employed, preferably at a school that can benefit from her language skills. Give her a fair chance to prove her competence.
And no matter what happens, we should give her an apology and a settlement of some sort. A settlement isn't just morally correct. I can only imagine the liability that Looney and Harris have exposed taxpayers to by poisoning the investigation before it was finished.
Second, I have no confidence in Jason Looney's ability to lead Tenoroc or any other school. I don't believe our district should either. I will leave the mechanics of addressing that -- or not addressing it -- to Jackie Byrd, who has the ultimate decision-making power. I will then publicly assess whatever decisions are made.
And we need to immediately focus full attention on rebuilding the climate at Tenoroc. The school does not serve a wealthy community. It's a "D" on the state's corrupt grading system. It has one of Polk's lowest, if not the lowest, high school graduation rates. There is no record for Looney to point to since 2012 that's worth a damn, even on the state's corrupt system.
What Tenoroc desperately needs is supportive unified leadership and faculty with common purpose. Those kids deserve that. We desperately need to address the factional environmental problem.
When this is resolved definitively, I would love to have an entirely voluntary meeting with the staff at this school so that anyone who wants can yell at me and take out their frustrations. I urge anyone at Tenoroc reading this to focus whatever anger you may feel at me, not each other. We need you focused on the kids there.
No more ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The fact that it's impossible to know reality with complete metaphysical certainty does not excuse leaders from making judgements based on patterns and preponderance of evidence. It does not excuse leaders from leading. Leadership requires more than \_(ツ)_/¯. Leadership autonomy comes with the responsibility to have hard confrontations with behavior in the service of leadership and human development.
Look at how easy it was to destroy Brandi Blanchard. Look at how untouchable Jason Looney appears to be. Blanchard and Looney, like all administrators, serve completely at the discretion of the superintendent. It's not clear to me why district leaders trust Looney so implicitly -- and so distrust Blanchard.
Neither has any collective bargaining protection. Every position that either person holds -- or doesn't hold -- is an active choice by our district leadership. Are you content with these choices in this case? I am not. Forget the sexual harassment investigations for a moment. The undisputed events of the Looney/Harris mandatory meeting on Aug. 31 are worse acts of administrative leadership than anything used to destroy Brandi Blanchard.
The gulf between the consideration that our leaders give our people cannot be so wide if we want our organization to succeed.
Jackie Byrd did not create this gulf and culture. It far predates her. It far predated Kathryn LeRoy, who deepened it. Indeed, so many people have told me: that's just the way it's always been. Not anymore. Not while I'm your board member. The days of unanimous ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ as board consensus are over.
No matter who you are -- if you're Jackie Byrd taunted by BoE and Gary Chartrand or a janitor abused by a supervisor -- you deserve freedom from abuse of power. It's the only way we'll ever build real common purpose, a common purpose we do not have today.
I fear this incident has greatly strained my relationship with our top district staff. I lament that and will always work to repair it. But I regret or apologize for nothing. That's because I have learned, and not just from this case, that few of our employees believe they can safely report wrongdoing or abuse by a superior and have it taken seriously. Few of our employees believe the district leadership has their overall development and best interest in mind. I want to change that belief, while also supporting autonomy of leadership judgement. That's not an easy balance. I'll talk about it more in parts to come.
Personnel judgement calls and abuse are different things. They take much work to discern from one another. We need to do that work. And we need to build a developmental, mutually supportive leadership culture that prizes growth and transparency and makes difficult judgement calls less necessary. Helping to build that culture is a challenge I relish. And I want to hear your thoughts about how best to do it. I have plenty of my own.
But understand this, if you have power in the district while I sit on its School Board, and you abuse that power, and I find out about it, I will take it seriously. If it's severe and unjust enough, if it destroys people and work environments without cause, I will bend my will to undoing it. And if you think I abuse my power, because power corrupts everyone, I expect you to come at me with the same intensity.
We must all be in this together.
Here is the transcript of Tim Harris' speech to the Tenoroc faculty.
[Recording begins with inaudible reference to “connections” to the school]
I taught for 19 years. Started my career in 1975 at Katheen Junior High. And then on to Lake Gibson and Lake Gibson High School. Then I worked for the district office for 12 years. I primarily taught civics then later American government. I always encouraged my students to get involved. I always said, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain. And if you don’t vote that’s fine because I always will, and I’ll basically run the country.” Using reverse psychology on them to get them motivated.
I would like to say thank you to the eight staff members from this school who emailed me in the last couple of weeks. You were very respectful in your email. You were very professional. You carried your heart and your passion and for that I appreciate it. There is nothing ever wrong with communicating with an elected official as long as you do it politely and you don’t point your finger and yell and curse at them.
I appreciate those of you were comfortable enough to send those emails, some of whom I did reply.
And as a result of those emails I felt like it was important for myself and the superintendent to come out and speak with you and show our support -- and support of Mr. Looney.
Unfortunately, the superintendent cannot be here she has a very important family issue. [Inaudible] She’s out of the office for several days. So keep her in your prayers please.
I personally have gone through situations in my career, and I was with the school district for 31 years before I ran for School Board, where I had a supervisor, let’s just say had a different paradigm from mine.
I finally got to the point where I could handle the different paradigm because I decided that myself and that supervisor were always going to disagree. We just had a totally different philosophy of life. When I finally got to those mental positions with those three separate supervisors, I was able to deal with it a lot better and accept their differences from mine. It made looking for another job a lot easier mentally.
Now one of those case I did not change jobs. It was the supervisor that was eventually promoted.
[Here Harris goes into a discussion about one of his former supervisors that is hard to make out. This sentence that follows is about all I could make out.]
Don’t work yourself to death because he literally did. Only one time did I get to work before he did. And he was late at 5:30 am [inaudible] You live to work or you work to live.
Sometimes decisions made at a level above us we don’t understand because we don’t, in Paul Harvey’s words, know the rest of the story.
Since I have been on the board, it has become even more obvious to me to be a good board member [inaudible phrase] you need to have previous board experience at a pretty significant level to be an effective leader in that position.
Just think about that when you vote for people for public office: have they ever served on a corporate board or a major non-profit board before they run for a public office? There is something to be said for experience. There’s something also to be said for a fresh voice and a fresh face. [Inaudible phrase]
When I talked to the superintendent, I told her, that you know, I’m not [sounds like: “hearing about”] those rumors floating around that many of you addressed in your emails. And she said, “I’m not either. I don’t know why they’re out there.” There are no plans for turmoil [inaudible phrase]. And if anyone would know, it should have been the school board member who represents that school. [Inaudible phrase]
As a 31-year employee and 11 year board member, I know how important it is for all of us, including myself to think of ourselves as salespeople of the Polk County public school system. Because wherever you go, you don’t take off your School Board employee hat. The public knows who you are they know who you represent, they know who I represent. Whether you like it or not. We are held to a higher standard. Higher stand of behavior. Higher standard of dress. Higher standard in the things we create in front of their child.
I urge you to make sure that when you, and we all do, need to get something off your chest, you don’t do it in the aisles of Publix or Walmart.
That’s because people hear what you say. You don’t know who is listening to your conversation. We’re all salespeople. It could be negative or it can be positive. If it’s negative [inaudible] they might say: “If you work for that organization and you’re lambasting them, why are you still there?”
Or [Inaudible phrase]] hear you as a person on the inside singing the praises of the school… [inaudible [phrase]
I also wanted to make sure when I came and spoke that I didn’t just talk to...
[Harris says something about football game attendance. Much of this passage is inaudible.]
There are 14 schools in this district 7 and about 69,000 population in each one of the 7 districts
I had a supervisor one time who called me about being involved in civic affairs. Isn’t that ironic? Talking to a civic teacher about being too involved in civic affairs. I am here as testimony that I did not listen to that man. Being involved in civic affairs is a large part of what led me to this place in my life. The path that you are on will take you where you’re going to go. Upward or downward.
And I just want you to know that the door, the phone number, and the email is always open if you ever need to share. Though, I will tell you, or ask you, what I always ask members of the public when they contact me. As a matter of fact, as I was riding over here I got a call from Tallahassee, where someone called Tallahassee about one of the schools in the district and berated then for 30 minutes and when they asked if you’ve spoken to your school board member, they said, "Well, no who is it?" [uses a mocking voice here]
When I get calls, I ask that same question, “have you spoken to the school administrator; if you have, have you spoken to the school administrator’s supervisor, or the deputy superintendent? Or the superintendent before you call me?” Because no one likes it when somebody goes over over your head. [Inaudible]
So think about positively representing the organization that you work for and the school you work at. Think about that positive communication with your elected officials, whether School Board member, [inaudible], state legislator etc. Do whatever you can to support the leader that you have in front of you. And if that is not something you are comfortable with and you are on a totally different paradigm, that’s [inaudible phrase] too. And if [inaudible word] can get to [inaudible word] you at another school, [inaudible phrase] your choice.
But splattering things out in the public is not going to solve problems. You got an issue? Come talk to me. Send me an email.
It’s my job [sounds like: “to be a board member” but not certain], not [inaudible phrase] the superintendent or school leader -- for those of you who don’t know the chain of command. Once that chain of command has been worked up, and you still have an issue, then it is time for the board to step in
The board has three jobs basically: sets policy for the whole district, hire the superintendent, and [inaudible] the annual budget. That’s our three primary roles. Questions?
I’ll be staying around for a few minutes.
Got a chance to talk to one of your officials. You don’t get too many times to meet face-to-face with someone you’ve elected to office.