An "F" think tank: Lakeland Leads delivered no deliverables, but did collect $20K in PPP

What this case study tells us about the work values of inherited American wealth and the political education think tank class.

Back in 2018-19, three big names in Lakeland’s Big Capital community formed an education “think tank” they called “Lakeland Leads” with $252,000 in combined seed money.

They were: David Hallock (managing partner of the Lakeland office of GrayRobinson, a big Florida law firm); Wesley Beck (a Lakeland real estate developer), and Jeff Chamberlain (retired Publix senior vice president of real estate and facilities). Each has been active in the Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC) over the years.

Lakeland Leads then hired a Bartow heiress and former low level employee for Jeb Bush’s education foundation named Kate Wallace to run this organization at an annual salary of $106,112 — as its only employee. $106K is about 230 percent more than a typical teacher makes in Polk County.

Here’s what Lakeland Leads said it was going to do in 2019, as documented in its 990 form which was filed in February 2021.

Some highlights:

  • “publishing detailed white papers, free to the general public, outlining our findings and recommendations for the public to consider”

  • “hosting town hallstyle meetings to educate and engage citizens”

  • “inviting renowned speakers to come to present in Lakeland, so they can offer ideas to advance our community and facilitate open discussions with our guests”

  • “hosting a resource rich website for the public to access, which will feature the organization's research findings, data portals, links to helpful resources, press releases and other related information about the work of the organization”

To my knowledge, not one of those things happened. I’ve tried to confirm this with Kate Wallace by phone, email, and text; but she has not answered me. I cannot find any “resource rich” Lakeland Leads website. (Tell me if you find it.) Perhaps it is on the dark web.

Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads did pay a contractor to help create one glossy school report (not reports); but they never released it to the public or shared it with the School Board as a group like they said they would. I suspect that’s because it’s an embarrassingly mediocre marketing brochure for corporate charter chains and vouchers — and I laughed at it in public when I got an advance copy, which caused them a certain degree of embarrassment.

A peculiar emergency

Fascinatingly, federal paycheck protection loan records show that Lakeland Leads got a $20,832 forgivable PPP loan in April 2020. There is no 990 for 2020 yet that I can find, so it’s impossible to know if Lakeland Leads had been funded for 2020 when it got the 2020 loan. But it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t. Kate Wallace, an heiress and Lakeland Leads’ only employee, likely experienced the PPP loan as a $20,000 bonus for all those deliverables she didn’t deliver in 2019.

Florida teachers, of course, got no bonus or PPP relief for the work they did in the COVID-era of late last year and this year — until Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats kicked in the federal money for it.

These days, Ron DeSantis is bragging about the $1,000 Biden bonus he’s providing them — which pales next to the $20K Kate Wallace got from PPP.

It’s quite telling to me how Florida children of ardently capitalist inherited wealth, like the Harrells, Joel Greenberg, and Kate Wallace, all eagerly found a way to benefit from free socialism money they probably didn’t need at a moment of national and civic emergency. That was their moral instinct. They learned it somewhere. (To be clear, with the exception of Greenberg, who committed open criminal fraud, I see nothing illegal in how Wallace and the Harrells ($7-ish million) and others cashed in on PPP/emergency loans. I’m talking about basic work ethic, morality, and civic values.)

The wealthy and powerful of our community and state and country have taught inheritance children and overgrown children like Kate Wallace and Will Harrell and Matt Gaetz and Joel Greenberg that real work, real civic responsibility, and real accountability is always for people who don’t inherit capital. They’ve taught them that inherited capital entitles them to a cut of everyone else’s life — without even needing to work for it. For instance, Scott Franklin begging for Matt Gaetz’s support teaches Matt Gaetz a pretty clear lesson about citizenship. He’s clearly learned it.

Bottom-feeding

Keep in mind, as you imagine Kate Wallace cashing that $20,000 PPP “bonus,” that she publicly sneered at the people of Polk County during a state Board of Education in summer of 2019. Key quote: "A perpetual dark spot for our community has been being a perpetual bottom-feeding district."

If you attend or work in Polk public schools, she was talking about you. This is, of course, ironic, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen person benefit so thoroughly from the soft bigotry of low expectations as Kate Wallace.

If the Dave Hallocks and Wesley Becks and Jeff Chamberlains of the world want to waste their money or their company money on sinecures for the kids of wealth, I can’t stop them. But imagine having that capability — having $250K per year to just light on fire — and doing that with it.

In any event, I don’t see how Lakeland Leads, based on Kate Wallace’s performance and achievement, can present itself as anything but a “bottom-feeding” think tank. If think tanks got school grades, Lakeland Leads would be an F; and if schools and districts get graded, education think tanks should, too.

The next time folks complain about unemployment benefits supposedly making young folks lazy — at a time of record teen employment — maybe we should all ask ourselves how many six-figure jobs are just free money for no productivity.

If there was not $106K per year easy money to make in education “policy,” maybe the Kate Wallaces of the world might find their way to a classroom to teach for less than half of that, rather than making life harder for the people already doing it.

Or maybe they could pick up a shift at a needy restaurant rather than judging and undertipping the teachers working second jobs as servers.