Applying a Michelle Townley lens to the Polk superintendent search

An appreciation of Polk County's best administrator. And what her talents tell us about what to look for in the next superintendent.

First, I have to apologize to Michelle Townley. I do not think she will be pleased that I’m writing this. But I don’t know that for sure because I don’t know her personally at all. I have never seen her nor spoken to her in a setting not directly related to official school business. She has never shared or discussed her career goals with me in any way. Nevertheless, our professional interactions over four years lead me to suspect this note of appreciation may embarrass or make her uncomfortable a little. And I’m sorry for that; but there’s an important public purpose for it.

So I hope she’ll forgive me.

As an elected school board member, I developed great respect for and confidence in Michelle Townley’s leadership, ethics, and competence. She was one of five regional superintendents when I was elected; and Superintendent Jackie Byrd eventually made her acting chief academic officer (CAO) after Michael Akes’ career imploded about the time COVID hit last year.

The CAO is among the four or five highest-ranking officials in the district. In terms of real world daily influence, the CAO is second only to the superintendent. Mrs. Byrd must have seen the same value in Michelle Townley that I did.

Unfortunately, Townley did not apply for the superintendent job. In fact, she seems to have given herself a “demotion,” which I’ll discuss in a moment. It’s very good news for the kids of Mulberry and seems to be good news for her, too.

I want to walk through publicly what makes Michelle Townley good at her job — and why I hoped she would apply to become the next superintendent. I would still consider her the best option, given what I’ve seen of the superintendent candidates screened by the public screening committee. The applicant pool has improved; and there are some decent candidates on paper among those getting interviews. I’d still rather have Michelle Townley.

Alas, it’s pretty clear that’s not in the cards. So I want to tell the next superintendent, whoever it is, that they would be wise to recognize and deploy Townley’s talents in whatever ways she’s willing. And I want to share this appreciation with the public in the hope it might influence questioning of candidates and what shapes the final selection.

Competence and grace under extraordinary pressure

In her brief tenure as acting CAO, Townley took on two punishing, public, thankless leadership roles. She performed admirably in both:

1) First she became the management face of district negotiations with the Polk Education Association in the aftermath of the Red Weekend drama (when the Polk District stupidly and recklessly forwarded a state Department of Education email threatening to fire 1400 Polk teachers for attending a rally thousands of other Florida teachers were attending.) That was in late January/early February. Townley was instrumental in reducing acute labor/management tension and helping deliver an agreement that responded to labor concerns about work conditions. There wasn't much anyone could do about money, which the state does not provide in adequate amounts. But by all accounts, the tenor and effectiveness of those negotiations changed for the far better when Townley got involved.

2) After COVID hit, Townley was given the hopeless task of designing Polk’s hybrid online and in-person model of COVD education. She and the committee of teachers and staff she led did outstanding, collaborative work over the summer of 2020 in preparation. And they did it on camera.

I never saw Townley raise her voice or get snippy or get defensive or pretend that what she and her team were designing wasn’t going to get pulverized by the state government’s desire to weaponize school opening politically and jam it back into the same nonsensical and fraudulent state system of number manipulation.

I cannot imagine the internal and external pressure Townley was under during this time.

Nevertheless, the basic system Townley and committee built, contorted as it became by reality, has actually “worked.” By that I mean it has functioned as well anything could be expected to work within Florida’s god-awful, anti-human, COVID approach to school, which is grinding up long-term education capacity for the most selfish and fleeting of short-term political gain. (Nobody in power gives a shit about human well-being or academic gain in Florida schools. At all. It’s Lord of the Flies out there, as far as state power is concerned. Make no mistake; it’s everybody for themselves as long as state politicians can brag about being “open” and doing testing.)

I’m responsible for two high school seniors, who have slid back and forth to their brick and mortar school due to quarantine or our family enrollment decisions. This has happened with reasonable seamlessness and ease, all things considered. I largely credit Michelle Townley for that, for being a graceful voice of sanity and competence in a hurricane of lethal, erosive nonsense.

A very different type of Polk District leader

I was not particularly surprised that Michelle Townley performed as well as she did as acting CAO. By that time, I had already come to regard her as by far the best member of Mrs. Byrd’s top leadership team. The reasons were pretty simple:

  • Quiet self-confidence: Alone among senior leaders, Townley never reacted defensively or cagily or combatively or with fear to any question I asked or issue I raised as a board member. She just answered the questions or addressed the issues as best she could. She was always thorough, always prepared, always direct, and to my knowledge, always honest. She seems completely comfortable in her own skin. I do not believe she and I ever had a difficult moment.

  • Two-way professional respect and tolerance: I never heard a single report from a staff member about fearing organizational retribution from Michelle Townley. Sadly, this is a rare distinction. Townley managed to be professionally loyal upward while being professionally tolerant and welcoming of input from downward. That’s an impressive feat of organizational leadership — especially in a Polk County district and wider political/leadership class culture that is very much kick-down, kiss-up.

  • Command of a room: Townley’s on-her-feet command of language, ideas, point-of-view, tone of delivery of what she wants to say is the easily the best among district senior leaders. Watch her run a meeting. Real leaders have those skills. Only HR director Teddra Porteous rivals Townley’s room-command strengths at the district.

  • Respected across the organization: I quietly floated Townley’s name to a wide variety of mostly internal stakeholders after Mrs. Byrd announced her retirement. The reactions ranged from pleased with that idea to very enthusiastic. The only mild concerns people expressed were experience/ resume/credential-related. And you can say exactly the same about whoever gets hired here ultimately. There are no “successful” sitting superintendents in large diverse districts that look like Polk on the menu for hiring. The superintendent finalists all have pedigrees that look a lot like Townley’s.

  • Nuanced grasp of state compliance relationship: In my view, Townley understands how to manage the cynical compliance dance a local Florida education leader must perform to create space for creating actual human education. It’s difficult to do both in a way that doesn't alienate people and provoke malicious power simultaneously. I think Townley understands and navigates that balance very well. And that’s the best you can hope for until the Florida Model collapses.

  • Lifelong commitment to Polk: Finally, Townley is from here. She grew up in Mulberry and graduated from Mulberry High, as I understand it. Polk County is a weird amalgam of very different communities that place different types of political and educational demands on its public education system. On top of that, Polk’s education politics of the last 5-6 years or so are pretty unusual and complex as well. Understanding those dynamics — living them and working successfully within them, as Townley has — is a great advantage to a person with the right balance of organizational leadership and emotional intelligence. I think only Townley has that balance among Polk’s current senior leaders.

    Moreover, Polk’s wider Ruling Class has an odd inferiority complex about its own communities. They’re forever trying to put something “on the map” or launch Polk County into the big time by bringing in “out of town talent” or something. This is particularly the case in schools, as the appointed superintendent hires since the early 2000s largely demonstrate. The disastrous decision to hire Kathryn LeRoy over David Lewis a few years back illustrates this.

    Townley and many others in more mid-level leadership leadership roles demonstrate there’s quite a lot of homegrown talent here. It’s foolish for Ruling Class Club to project its insecurities onto the rest of us. It’s too often led to hiring mercenary leaders — in schools and beyond — with little or no personal skin in the game for community well-being and development.

In my opinion, a leader with the skills and attributes Townley brings — or at least a lot of them — has the best chance of “succeeding” in the fascinating American landscape that is Polk County.

A different, understandable path

When Mrs. Byrd retired, I sent a short email to Michelle Townley asking her to apply for the superintendent job. She was the only internal candidate I considered capable of delivering the type of cultural change and environment this organization desperately needs.

I also thought, given the factional tensions that had grown up around Mrs. Byrd and me, that a candidate we both seemed to value would be a natural source of organizational unity moving ahead, no matter what ultimately happened to the two of us.

Appropriately, Townley’s brief polite response to that note betrayed no hint to me of her thinking or future ambitions. Like I said, always professional.

In early January, the Polk District announced the Townley would become principal of the new Willow Oak Elementary School in the Mulberry area. That is obviously a step down for Townley in pay and authority; but I completely believe her when she says this:

“I am incredibly thankful to Superintendent Byrd for honoring my request to serve as the principal … After much thought, consideration, and discussion with my family, this position best suits my commitments at this time in my life. Having the chance to open a brand-new school has long been a dream of mine. When I couple this dream with the opportunity to serve the community in which I grew up, I cannot help but feel it will be one of the greatest honors of my career.”

Again, I have never had a discussion with Michelle Townley about her professional or personal goals and ambitions. I do not know them and will not hazard a guess about them.

I will say, in general, that many (if not all) of the best professional leaders I’ve encountered are not consumed with personal ambition. And that’s why, too often, people who are consumed with personal ambition get power over superior leaders who are not. That’s a basic human condition that’s hard to change.

Based on four years of observation, I think Michelle Townley would rather do her job than have her job. Being a good principal or senior leader matters much more to her than just being a principal or senior leader. I cannot pay any leader a better professional or personal compliment than that.

I hope Townley takes this as the appreciation for her service that it is. I also hope she avoids any fallout for it. The fact that I even have to write that ridiculous sentence at the end of an article full of gushing professional praise demonstrates why she would have been very good — and why she makes an excellent model for the next district leader.