Barney Barnett's approach to power; my approach to power; and the superintendent's future

[This is not the article I first intended to write in the aftermath of the election. But there is a time element here related to the Tuesday work session and board meeting – and what the superintendent intends to do in response to the election. Barney Barnett's fake racism smear campaign bears on that meeting.]

Barney Barnett is the supreme power in Polk County, the very embodiment of Publix’s status and values in this community. (Yes, he’s more powerful than Grady Judd, although that would be an interesting cage match.)

Barney Barnett, along with a few other people, is also "Citizens for Polk Education." He financed and built the fake racist smear campaign against me, as surely as Barney built and financed Barnett Park and anything else with the Barnett family name on it. Barney's money built the image below, along with many, many other mass instruments of fake racism smears -- and other lies:

Of the $82,000 that "Citizens for Polk Education" raised for its fake racism smears, Barney gave $25,000. His daughter-in-law, Ashley Bell Barnett, gave another $10,000. She's married to Barney's son Wesley and is Melony Bell's daughter. You'll remember that Melony wanted the governor to remove me from office a while ago just for existing.

You'll also find many of the individuals behind Lakeland First personally contributed to Barney's fake racism campaign. You'll have to decide for yourself, as you read those names, how "woke" these folks really are. In any event, it's always, always good for power to reveal its true nature, under its actual names, in front of everyone. Inspiring that to happen is among the greatest services I perform for my community. I am always deeply proud to do it.

Here's a screen shot of contributors to "Citizens for Polk Education." Click to enlarge. You can also look more closely if you follow this link.

I should say that I completely understand why individual black voters who don't know me would vote against me, considering what Barney and The Ledger were willing to bombard them with at strategic moments. This is a fraught time; and why take the chance that a school board might be a racist? It's understandable. Also, I had a record of holding the superintendent, who is black, accountable for her very important role. I made myself vulnerable to Barney's campaign by doing my job. And I would do so again.

Moreover, my fight for racial and social equity in my community is rooted in my values, my patriotism, and my personal history, not short-term political transactions. That fight, of course, will continue, in as many ways as I can think of to pursue it. I have a great record to build on, which you can read about here, again.

I've also made a number of new friends and acquaintances among the next generation of black leaders in Lakeland and Polk County. I'm excited to work with them to build meaningful power and change over time, in areas like single -member districts for Lakeland and geographical choice for magnet schools.

The power of being Public Enemy Number 1

Indeed, the person hurt least by Barney Barnett's fake racist smear campaign was Billy Townsend.

I know who I am; and I truly don’t care what Barney Barnett or anyone else calls me at scale, unless it’s true. Name-calling and power-worship have never stopped me from doing what's right; and it won't stop me now in this new phase of my life when I do not have a fragile elected office to protect and district organization to simultaneously represent and reform.

I haven’t lost any friends or readers of any race (I've gained them and will gain more); and I get my full, rich life back. I get to write books again. My personal reputation is enhanced, thanks largely to the clumsy money of the people on that list, who have now signaled to Polk County how important they think I am. It's flattering and empowering. Sorry haters; nobody hurt me.

That's because my personal power, such as it is, derives entirely from how many people believe me when I critique misbehavior of power in public. That's it. I have no other power or importance than telling the truth in public. So you should all think of my 47,331 votes, unshaken by lies and lazy malicious money, as my loyal audience.

That audience is much larger than The Ledger's circulation; and it's growing. Moreover, Barney and the Harrells and Leadership Club and the for-profit charter school people have now told everybody I'm "Public Enemy Number 1." Do you think their insistence on telling you how much I matter will help or hurt the credibility and power of what I write in the weeks, months, and years to come?

Do you think my voice and presence isn't going to loom over everything that happens within the Polk School District organization in the coming years?

Barney has badly hurt the Polk school system -- and public life

While Barney strengthened me, he severely hurt the Polk County School District and the public life of Lakeland and Polk County. And not because I won’t be a board member anymore. That’s just a footnote. Everyone is replaceable, especially me. And school boards are only as useful as board members who are willing to use them as platform enhancement for critique of the state system, as I did. If you don't use it that way, it's a pointless and powerless office to hold. It need not exist.

What truly matters about the campaign is this: the supreme power in Polk County, the very embodiment of Publix’s values, decided with his friends to eagerly finance and encourage a racism smear campaign he and everyone else involved knew was false from the beginning. They did this about a politician with a very loyal and intense following that crosses racial lines. And they won a very narrow victory by stoking generational social conflict at a very sensitive and volatile time for our country’s social fabric during a global pandemic. With all their billions and power, at the moment of maximum community distress, this is where they chose to put their effort.

Barney willfully, yet casually, created massive racial division at scale, entirely based on lies, within the Polk School District and our community. Just because he could.

The repercussions of that extend far beyond someone as comparatively insignificant as me or the superintendent. It adds a toxic ongoing dimension to the relationship between the staff who do the daily work and district's leadership at a time when trust is the thing most needed.

The consequences of that toxicity don’t end with the election for the Polk School District; they're just getting started. I will not be able to control these consequences because I am not Barney Barnett or Jack Harrell; and I don't conceive of power as the control of others.

Those of us who actually despise racism and social division; those of us who recognize the complex difficulties of fighting both; those of who actually care about a unified, equitable community more than our own power and wealth -- have much, much work to do to try fix what Barney and friends have broken. We'll have to do it one relationship at a time.

What Barney did is far more important than the election's outcome

So why did Barney use his enormous power to do this to industrialize a fake racism smear campaign -- and many other lies? The most logical and obvious explanation is that his daughter-in-law has a personal grudge; and he likes to indulge his adult kids. But you’d have to ask him. I’ve only really spoken to him once, years ago, about Hazel Haley, who taught him in public school and who he said he revered.

Whatever the reasoning, Barney is the most significant thing that happened in this campaign, by far, including the outcome. It’s not the fake racism, mind you. That’s the kind of trash talk that happens in campaigns. It’s that Barney had the will, motivation, and means to industrialize it -- even beyond the pocket change he spent. He had the power, by virtue of his billions, to ensure and enforce that people like Howard Wiggs, Frank O’Reilly, and Bill Mutz lent their names and personal reputations to the fake racist smear campaign (and other lies) and never broke from it publicly, even though each man knew clearly it was all false.

That’s what power is for Leadership Club – the ability to control other people and own their morality. Above all things, I understand power -- and what it takes to stand opposed to it or nudge it in a better direction. It's an ongoing, never-ending process, in which "winning" isn't really a thing that's possible. Thus, I would much rather lose an individual election to power than surrender my ongoing personal moral agency to it. Indeed, losing 52-48, in this county, to that kind of power deployed so shamelessly, is pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. But power doesn't care about moral victories.

On the other hand, as I've said, power in this case has also misunderstood the source of my power -- while also elevating the importance of my voice far beyond where I could have elevated it on my own in the short-term.

About the superintendent and the short-term

I write this Barnett preamble now because it's important to understanding my immediate point-of-view on the superintendent’s future and my own role in my remaining time as a board member and then as a citizen journalist in the future to come.

In education, I am a long-term thinker with a simple, but difficult, long-term goal: destroy the comprehensive fraud and failure that is Jeb Bush’s Florida model of education. This model reduces all children to numbers in ways that are massively racist and classist in many ways that I’ve documented many times. I want to replace it with something real, humane, and equitable. I know that achieving this goal is the only way to really change education at scale in Polk County, whoever the superintendent is.

Narrowly losing this election, for reasons I’ll explain in greater detail in a different article, increasingly appears helpful to me in the pursuit of that goal.

By contrast, the people most eager to see me leave the board are generally very short-term thinkers. They just want the feeling of beating me. They’re high-fiving; and the scuttlebutt is that the superintendent will now withdraw her “retirement.” People have speculated all along that the “retirement” was just a cheap campaign stunt – in the time of COVID, no less.

I’ve always just tried to take the superintendent at her word; but I guess we’ll see. The first indication of this should come at Tuesday's work session and meeting, which is why I'm writing this now.

A fresh start is the best option

Whether the superintendent does or does not take back her retirement is quite irrelevant to what matters most to me – the destruction of the fraud and inhumanity of the Florida Model.

Again, the Leadership Club folks were fighting a war against me; I wasn’t fighting one against them – because they don’t actually matter much to what I’m trying to accomplish. Indeed, I routinely reached out to many of them in the unsuccessful hope that they would take education in Polk County and its future seriously. Alas, those efforts were futile.

My relationship with the superintendent has been similar. I've been fighting the Florida Model and cultural deficiencies within the organization; Jackie Byrd has been fighting me. That has always been the core of the Billy/Jackie dynamic, which is actually just a Jackie dynamic. Anyone who is honest or remotely paying attention knows this.

That dynamic doesn't die with my title because I am very popular with the staff who do the work and the parents who need help; and I will remain so. Barney's massive, $82,000 fake racist smear campaign only touched people who don't know me and angered people who do. So it's only going to make the internal district dynamic worse, and more racially polarized, as will the superintendent's return.

No one knows what the next couple of years hold; but the Polk District will be much better off internally if the superintendent goes her way and I go mine and the people of the district are allowed a fresh start.

Why it’s a bad idea for everyone -- including the superintendent -- for the superintendent to take back her retirement

So, should the superintendent seek to rescind her retirement on Tuesday, or any other time, I will express my opposition to taking her back and, yet again, short-circuiting a superintendent search. But I also recognize that my position is unlikely to matter. Elections have consequences; and this decision will fall on Lynn Wilson and Lori Cunningham, most likely.

Here are my reasons nonetheless. They start with Barney's fake racism smear campaign.

Gow Fields and Barney Barnett have now racialized everything, which will make basic public oversight for the board and public very hard or very ugly

One cannot afford to ignore the record in making judgments about the future; and I try never delude myself. So it seems clear to me that any time an elected board member disagrees with the superintendent or tries to perform basic organizational oversight of the superintendent, Gow Fields and others will scream racism.

Based on experience, one has to assume that Barney Barnett and Wesley Barnett and Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and Alice Hunt and the Polk Builders Association and the Lakeland First people and whomever else will either amplify Gow with their money in the screaming of the racism or enable him with their silence. And they'll mostly ignore real racism in the other areas of the school system and society where it actually exists.

Thus, elected oversight of a $1.9 billion local government organization will become very difficult or very ugly or both.

I am very willing to have fake racism -- or all the other insults -- screamed at me for the sake of the greater public good. Indeed, I doubt there is anybody in this county or state as willing to take that heat; so very few people will risk it. And the definition of actual racism will get further cheapened. All of that is very damaging for the school system and our community -- and for the fight against racism as a whole.

The dishonesty of superintendent’s retirement letter – and her public answers about it

In her retirement letter, dated May 19th, Superintendent Byrd wrote:

Lately, some Board Members have either acted or attempted to act in ways that materially blur the respective roles and responsibilities of the School Board (policy and budget) and Superintendent (operations).”

Note that part in bold. When it comes to me, this statement is flatly untrue. That’s why the superintendent has been unable to give a specific example of this material blurring when I have asked for one in public. It’s because none exists.

Various people have already searched my emails and texts from this period. The superintendent and I have not had a person-to-person conversation in months. She canceled our last scheduled call in April. I do not know why she nodded and quietly said “yes” to Gow Fields when he questioned her about leaving — just before Gow said I was the same as a race murderer. You would have to ask her.

If she's saying she decided to retire because of something I did related to operations -- especially at any time around her retirement letter -- she's just lying. Flatly lying. If she says she's leaving because of me, but for other reasons, which she will not publicly articulate, she might as well be lying.

Either way, I can't trust someone so comfortable with open dishonesty as the leader of the district's culture moving ahead. Not while I'm still your board member.

If the superintendent is going to behave like an elected superintendent, we should have an elected superintendent

I do not, in the abstract, support an elected superintendent because of the massive disruption each election causes to the organization. But, if the superintendent does, in fact, rescind her retirement, she will be behaving like an elected superintendent without having to face the voters.

Some folks may recall that I even asked the superintendent and board if we should delay the superintendent search pending the outcome of the election. I was actually fine with having that kind of referendum. To have openly said, "I'll see if Billy loses and go from there," would have been honorable and fair to the public as a whole.

But the superintendent didn't answer; and board chair said that we should move forward. To rescind now changes the terms on which the election was fought and is unfair and disrespectful and dishonest to voters. I respect all voters, including those who voted against me, far too much to ratify dishonesty toward them.

I will still be the journalist covering the Polk School District – just with a bigger audience and no political constraints

And finally, this is one for the superintendent herself to consider.

Where tension arose between the superintendent and me, it was not because I “acted or attempted to act in ways that materially blur the respective roles and responsibilities of the School Board (policy and budget) and Superintendent (operations).”

That's flatly false; and Jackie knows this just as well as I do.

Tension arose from her toward me because I critiqued her decisions and performance accurately in public, just as I publicly praised her when her decisions and performance deserved praise.

She resents being a subject of my journalism at all.

I probably would have won the election if I hadn’t written about the Looneys, John Small's ridiculous self-dealing with K12, and the San Diego trip funded by people who hate public education. The superintendent position had ultimate responsibility for all three; and I couldn't hide that from the public because she's black.

Had I not written about those things, I would have forsaken my oath and myself. I would have been a garbage school board member. The public needed to know about the abuses of power and core values on display in each of those sorry episodes. And I would absolutely do it again.

The only time I "intervened" in operations

In the Looney case, I took a career-defining risk to save a bilingual female Hispanic administrator’s career from wildly abusive and unethical power at all levels of the district and board.

That administrator is now thriving in the same role in Hillsborough County, which the state’s corrupt grade system considers a substantially “better” district than Polk. How can that be?

Saving that bilingual Hispanic administrator’s career is the only example I can think of that might be construed as involving myself in operations in my entire time on the board. It happened way back in 2017, if I remember right.

I directly pushed the superintendent to find that administrator a job at a different school after she had been wrongly fired and slandered by Tenoroc High School and the district. And the superintendent did so, grudgingly. It should be noted that the leadership at that middle school that hired her – a turnaround school that I had been extraordinarily supportive of in public writing – treated that victim of power horribly while she was there. But enduring that job gave her a lifeboat until she could escape somewhere that valued her.

If you think I’m not proud of that – that it wasn’t worth losing and having fake racism or anything else screamed at me to save that woman’s career – then you just don’t know me or how my ego works at all.

On two other occasions in four years, I told the superintendent privately that I would publicly criticize hires I thought she was planning if she went through with them. I told her that privately in the hope of the avoiding public embarrassment for the superintendent and the people in question. In one of the cases, it was for the "chief of staff" position that has never been filled. And I told her I would rescind my public support of the position, which the board was asked to vote on, if a particular person was hired. But there was no consequence threatened other than my public commentary. The operational choice was entirely hers. (If anyone wants to know more, I'm happy to discuss my reasoning.)

Not a time for thin-skinned leaders

It is simply a fact that the superintendent is a very thin-skinned leader and deeply uncomfortable with any question that isn’t fawning. That’s why she can’t tolerate even the most basic oversight or minimal public criticism. She’s quite good at ingratiating herself with Leadership Club, which does have value, as I will explain in a future article; but her actual organizational leadership skills are lacking, as I’ve repeatedly noted in the hope of improving them.

What she truly resents about me, I suspect, is that I talk about her leadership skills in public, as I am now, in the same way I talk about all other public leaders, myself included.

Do you think that will ever stop?

With that in mind, the superintendent, just like all of Leadership Club, should understand that I have vastly expanded my audience in the last four years. Vastly. I have thousandsof potential sources from insidethe organization. They will feed me emails, documents, investigations, etc., just like they did when I was board member. And I will be able to address them at my leisure with no political constraints to consider.

My relationship with the superintendent isn't going to change much

I don’t recall the superintendent ever asking me a substantive question in my time on the board. She certainly never reached out to me on policy or tried to directly collaborate when I was on the board.

She experienced me primarily as a force to resist -- a journalist and a focal point of public pressure. And to her credit, she did respond to pressure, which is why my term was likely the most successful 4-year term in the history of the Polk County School Board, if not local government as a whole.

So our relationship isn’t going to change much, nor is her experience of me, when I just go back to being a citizen journalist and focal point of public pressure. Only now, I have no obligations to anything but the truth and to the public good of Polk County and the Polk School District.

The next Looney, K12, or San Diego trip is still going to get written about. There just won’t be any consequence for me, as an elected politician, in writing it. And I no longer have to balance pure journalism and truth-telling with the need to reach out to the superintendent collaboratively, or hold together a volatile political coalition or cover for the superintendent’s mistakes with the public, as I often did. At the same time, when and if the superintendent leads in ways that benefit the public and school system, as she did with resisting pressure to arm teachers, I'll praise her. Just like I always have. I'm a very fair person.

Again, the superintendent should consider this ongoing spotlight in her personal decision-making process.

Thanks, Leadership Club

It’s flattering to be the first candidate in the history of Polk County to raise all the money on both sides of a campaign. And then raise another $82,000 in shady hate money for "positive voices."

All that means is I did my job better than any local politician has done it here in a very long time. And everybody knows it. That’s why so many politicians and their enablers – many of whom hate each other – banded together in shame to defeat me with lies. They were afraid of the standard I set and the expectations I was creating.

Believe me, I can live that.

And now I get to go back to my natural habitat, with vastly expanded profile and platform, with none of the household stress of balancing multiple jobs. Let the next round begin.