An open letter to Polk's superintendent candidates

I don't see any Kathryn LeRoys in this group, which pleases me. Here is some practical advice on succeeding in Polk County from a former board member and current activist eager to help you.

Dear finalists:

Congratulations. I think you’re a good group. I’ve done some research; and I don’t have any clear favorite — or anyone I’m deeply concerned about on paper. There are aspects of each of you that excite me and also make me a little wary. That’s what I would expect from any search. I look forward to watching the interviews. I don't expect to endorse anybody.

Overall, I think the Citizens Committee and our FSBA facilitators did a nice job. And I thank them for their service. This elected board has a much better group from which to choose than the board that hired Kathryn LeRoy in our last superintendent search. I’m optimistic this will go far better; and that I will not have to lead a public revolt to remove any of you. I really don’t want to do that again; it consumed five years of my life.

But it also got us to this point of potential rebirth.

Committed to helping you succeed in human terms

As a very recent School Board member, I am eager for you to succeed. And I want to help however I can.

I think I bring reasonably sound insights into this district and how it fits into the wider existential struggle for the existence and future of public education. I’ve left a voluminous public record on that.

I also have quite reasonable expectations for “success.” They’re not rooted in manipulatable data; they’re rooted in human development and creation of the district’s capacity to provide it at scale.

As all of you know, there is much you cannot control as long as modern “scoreboard education” exists.

But you can control — or at least begin to meaningfully shape — the organizational culture of the Polk district and the notions of loyalty its leadership power enforces. That should be Job 1. The elected board was pushing hard on culture issues at the time that COVID hit and smashed everything like an organizational tsunami. You can restart that emphasis and run with it.

There is much room for easy improvement.

You can resurrect careers — and create a new culture of public, not personal, loyalty

To be blunt, in my observation, a substantial number of capable and dedicated people have seen their careers and lives harmed because they were seen as insufficiently personally loyal to the current superintendent.

As a result, children have suffered from not having that person’s influence in their daily lives or in the district organization that provides that influence at scale.

This pattern became so clear over time that I became reluctant to publicly praise individuals or suggest to senior district leadership that they were good at their jobs for fear of harming them. I have, in fact, admonished very capable people in the district not to say anything nice in public settings about anything I write. (That is a silly and counterproductive precaution to have to take.)

I will happily and privately meet with any of you after you’re hired to identify people blackballed by the current district leadership that you might do well to bring back into the fold. I will happily serve as a resource on any issue — on whatever terms you deem most useful — as long as you’re acting in good faith and for human well-being.

Portrait of the culture

You also might do well to review this very very long and very granular act of organizational journalism that I published in June of 2018. I called it: “Portrait of a leadership culture: a decade-long timeline of power, relationships, and consequences in the Polk District”

I don’t expect anyone to read it end-to-end in one sitting; but you would be wise to read the opening preamble and peruse the details at your leisure. I hope it will serve as a resource.

Political or social or personal affinity-based factions exist in any large organization. I think the great challenge of managing that factionalism is to keep the disputes or disagreements professional, not personal. Keep the focus on the job; not organizational status or hierarchy.

The outgoing superintendent saw no meaningful distinction between the personal and the professional, in my view.

She seemed to think she personally embodied the district. And she was indulged in that by too many people of power — in and out of the district.

There is no “power bishop” role in the org. chart. Having one anyway does not serve children or the public.

To give you an absurd example of this indulgence, the outgoing superintendent elevated a local clergy member, a self-described “bishop,” to a sort of ill-defined power chaplain role.

In that role, this “bishop” inserted himself angrily into HR-related decisions and discussions of the School Board outside of normal order at the March 17, 2020 meeting. On a previous occasion, he declared in an official meeting that criticism of the superintendent was condemned by God. “Any voice raised against her” was the phrase I recall. I don’t have the exact date, unfortunately.

Not only did the superintendent not correct him on any of these occasions; she further empowered him. Indeed, you may also have seen the “bishop’s” sense of his own power through his behavior during the final meeting of the superintendent search committee.

This “bishop’s” organizational power is not a sign of a healthy, professional leadership culture; it’s the sign of personal loyalty accounting for more than anything else.

And that’s just one weird, minor example.

A self-confident, productively self-critical leader makes a self-confident, productively self-critical district

Bottom line: you must be personally secure enough — confident enough in your own authority and ability and ideas — to consider alternative views or constructive feedback from your staff and elected board.

You must be personally strong enough to realize that someone who is very good at their job may also annoy you from time to time or seem to have loyalties that don’t end with you.

That is not a justification for killing their careers and taking them away from the kids of Polk County. That is emotional and professional weakness; and Polk has had very emotionally-weak leaders since at least 2013, I would say.

I recently provided an example of a district leader who is not emotionally weak. She isn’t a threat to you — she decided to go back to being a principal. But she’ll be tremendous resource for the future. I had hoped she would apply for the role that you’re pursuing. I think you would do well to study why.

Challenge your tropes

A vicious, racist, classist trope has too long existed in modern education politics and organizational psychology. It’s falling apart a bit now — as it’s being revealed everywhere as a destructive slander. But it’s still powerful.

You see it reinforced in movies like “Lean on Me” or “Stand and Deliver” or “Dangerous Minds” and “Won’t Back Down” or “Waiting for Superman” and the massively well-funded corporate “reform” advocacy industry. You see it reinforced in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism like the Tampa Bay Times “Failure Factories.”

It’s pretty simple: the people of public education — the kids themselves and most of the adults who serve them — are kinda inherently lazy and prejudiced and tolerant of mediocrity and just waiting for an ass-kicking dude like Jeb Bush or woman like Michelle Rhee, armed with super awesome useful standardized tests, to whip them all into shape. And they’ll be thankful for it afterward. Tough love, man. Roll the credits.

Again, it’s very movie narrative-shaped; and it is such anti-human, anti-reality bullshit.

But the 2013 Polk School Board, including current board members Kay Fields and Lori Cunningham, went all-in on that trope when they hired Kathryn LeRoy. They brought in cast-offs from the Duval County district to whip these lazy, backward Polk County people into shape. And it blew up in everyone’s face because LeRoy was an incompetent, self-dealing poser — as were most of her top hires.

I tried very very hard to convince Mrs. Byrd, the current superintendent, to fully to abandon that trope and the values of the LeRoy era; and at times we had success and made progress on it. But in the end, she couldn’t or wouldn’t fully abandon it. And she personalized all objections to it. That led her to go to war with me instead — a pointless war that I didn’t want and that nobody won.

On the other hand, one could argue that she’s moving on, as the last of the Jacksonville group; while I’m still here talking to you — with a readership, if not a vote. Heather Wright, John Small, and Debbie Henderson are also gone. You would thank me for that if you had experienced them as leaders of people.

In any event, it has taken five hard years — and a lot of sacrifice from people who believed in what we were doing — to fully dislodge the toxic consequences of that “reform” trope and the LeRoy hire. It took enormous personal and professional sacrifice from many people who are not me (I actually sacrificed very little) to create this space for regeneration in the day-to-day life of the Polk District.

That’s what I set out to do in early 2016. And I measure success by what what people do.

If hired, each of you would do very, very well not to come in here embracing the idea that the supposedly backward people of Polk County and its school district need a top-down tyrant to succeed because some overpriced corporate education leadership program told you that.

If you do, you’ll fail. Period. And I’ll help you fail.

There is not equity or quality without capacity; and capacity and culture are inseparable.

I tell people all the time that the “choice” in education isn’t “good school” versus “bad school” or “good teacher” versus “bad teacher.”

It’s “school” versus “no school”; it’s “teacher” versus “no teacher.” Or “bus driver” versus “no bus driver” or “ESE services” versus “no ESE services.” Etc.

The most urgent need in education — in America, Florida, and Polk County — is capacity.

Capacity. Capacity. Capacity.

A patchwork of substitute teachers is bad for kids with capital and kids without capital alike. That’s equity, right? Not really — because kids with private capital absorb the loss of public capital much more easily than kids without private capital.

And Polk County — like America (and especially Florida) — is a place where the divide between those who inherited private capital and those who didn’t is a deep and widening chasm. See this recent article for an example.

Organizational culture cannot create human capacity from thin air. There are limits to what you can do, which I fully understand. But bad culture can kill or erode good capacity that does exist; and it hampers efforts to develop as much new capacity as you can. That has been a big problem in Polk for a long time.

That’s why my supporters within the district fought so hard and suffered so much to change it. And why I felt obligated to carry that fight for them every day — and continue to.

Welcome to America

Polk County looks very much like America — in both its diversity and its sense of going many different social and political directions at once. There isn’t really a single county identity here; we’re more a patchwork of uneasily co-existing communities. You may have seen that already. I tried very hard to knit it together — and will continue to.

I think we’re the only county in Florida that connects three distinct regions — the Bay Area to our west, Orlando/Disney to our east, and the rural, small-town, inland “Heartland,” to both our south and north.

Urban, rural, suburban, exurban, blue, red, etc. — our county has all of it; and our public schools must serve the children of all with individual human attention — respectful of their cultural context — at scale.

On top of that, Polk County has a trifurcated education system: traditional neighborhood schools; a publicly-funded exclusive school layer of magnet and conversion charter schools; and a deeply segregated and hideously low-capital, substandard voucher school system that no one oversees or cares about. (Indeed, more than 800 Polk County black children attend school in 16 all-black or nearly all-black “Jeb Crow” voucher schools with no accreditation and no oversight. I’d wager that all of them will cycle in and out of the public system at some point.)

It’s quite the “portfolio model.”

It’s also an extraordinarily rewarding intellectual and moral challenge to engage every day. You will never be bored; but you will have to carve out space to rest and prioritize self-care — just like everyone in the district needs to.

If I can be of help in that sense — or any other way — I’m easy to reach. My phone number is 863.209.4037. Call anytime.

Good luck; and I look forward to engaging with you.