The Polk County School District has a very serious problem with its attorney. Indeed, if I am elected, I will have little to no confidence in anything School Board Attorney Wes Bridges tells me. Two very recent events illustrate why. And they demonstrate the costly incompetence and bad faith with which Bridges too often serves the Polk School Board and -- by extension -- the public.
Let's look at them briefly.
$3.5 million to cover a pointless, failed lawsuit designed to hurt our own teachers
If you were paying close attention, you might have noticed this big new expense for the tight 2016-17 School District budget year documented in a recent Ledger story.
And an estimated $3.5 million to pay back teachers who didn't get their advanced-degree pay, a requirement from a court case the district lost.
This court case dates to 2011-2012, when the Polk District denied supplemental advanced degree pay to 97 teachers. The district denied this pay if it felt the masters degree in question did not match up precisely enough with the subject the teacher taught.
How precise are we talking? Bridges and the district sought to prevent a teacher with a religion masters degree from earning masters pay if that teacher taught history. Or to prevent a computer science and technology masters degree holder from getting masters pay if she taught math. See this 2015 story here.
The Polk Education Association (the local teachers union) appealed this behavior to an arbitrator. The arbitrator ruled on Nov. 19, 2013, that the Polk District was wrong and owed the pay to its teachers. But Bridges and the district did not accept that ruling. They appealed in circuit court. The court then affirmed the arbitrator's ruling on July 10, 2014, marking a second loss.
Here's a key quote and passage from The Ledger story. Keep in mind, as he's saying this, Bridges, who you and I pay, has already lost twice.
"It was really a bizarre ruling of the arbitrator, to me," Bridges said.
He said he thinks it would violate state law to follow the arbitrator's ruling because the School Board would have to pay salary supplements for degrees they contend are pretty far afield. For example, he said, is religion close enough to history?
First, Bridges is a lawyer, not a policy maker. He has no standing to ask on my behalf if religion is close enough to history. (It is, by the way.) But his behavior, on this issue and others, tells me that he's essentially appointed himself as the shadow superintendent. That's completely unacceptable.
Second, Bridges' bizarre interpretation of what's "bizarre" carried the day with the Polk School Board. It filed yet another losing appeal to the 5th District Court of Appeal. And, of course, we lost.
Bridges took no professional responsibility for this. No apology for bad advice. He simply emphasized that the Board has to come up with the money this year.
School Board attorney Wes Bridges told the board the payment for advanced degrees is not optional and needs to be factored in.
Bottom line: Our teachers with masters degrees -- and those who went somewhere else because of this issue -- now get the pay they've earned. But it's in a $3.5 million chunk that harms other funding priorities in lean budget times. Quite simply, you and I would have been better off as taxpayers if the union's lawyers had represented us in own our case against them.
I can't think of a worse moral and professional indictment of a lawyer.
Shameless exploitation of politics to cover his own incompetence
A few weeks ago, the federal government announced it was withholding $4.3 million in magnet school grant funds "until the district brings its policies into compliance with federal law," according to a spokeswoman.
Bridges promptly speculated in public that the federal government did this to force the School District's hand on transgender accommodations. This led to an angry discussion among board members and an angry editorial in The Ledger.
The message was clear: the federal government is punishing Polk over bathroom access.
And that message was false. Completely. Thoroughly. False. False. False. False. Not true.
The question over grant funding actually related to the district's handling of its policies related to discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Key passage from The Ledger story here.
The School District was scheduled to adopt changes to its Student Code of Conduct that included routine changes as well as changes that would bring the district into compliance with a resolution agreement...
...That agreement stemmed from a student complaint filed in 2014 about discrimination based on race and national origin, Nolt said.
Thus, we see again the consequences of bad lawyering. You'll have to judge for yourself if Bridges knew the real reason the federal government held up the grant funds. You'll have to judge for yourself if he cynically sought to distract the public by scapegoating vulnerable people. I know what I think.
This, of course, happened before the Pulse shooting in Orlando. I hope that served as a reminder to Bridges of the danger that false, scapegoating narratives pose to real human beings every day. But I'm not optimistic about that.
Just as the School Board thought Kathryn LeRoy was doing a good job, it apparently considers Bridges' job performance acceptable. I do not. I have no confidence in Bridges. I have no confidence in the correctness of his advice. And I have no confidence in his moral good faith towards the citizens of Polk County.
He may be the single greatest obstacle to transforming the Polk Educational Experience and improving classroom quality of life.
I see two major ongoing issues that require legal advice and support I can trust.
1) Polk's relationship to state and federal mandates.
2) Creating an ESE experience that both presumes competence for children to the maximum extent possible and provides strong support for teachers that must execute.
I see no evidence at all that Bridges will be helpful in either. We need a helpful lawyer.
I have no illusions that changing Bridges will be easy. He's made millions of dollars from the Polk taxpayer over the years. He has a good gig. And his behavior in office tells me he will make it very difficult on us if we try to take that away. But change means doing difficult things.
If you agree, if you think change means change, please consider contributing to or volunteering with our campaign.