Dear Steve: If you're reading this on Monday morning, Polk Superintendent Jackie Byrd is most likely in the air, speeding toward a full week at a two-day bayside conference at this San Diego hotel, on LEDC's dime. This trip was not discussed in any way with the elected Polk County School Board until three days ago.
The conference is organized by Jeb Bush's powerful education establishment minions, who have run education in Florida for 20 years. They despise, ridicule, and empoverish the people who work for Mrs. Byrd and Polk County's children every day.
Mrs. Byrd is probably sitting next to Kate "perpetual bottom-feeding district" Wallace, who is also on LEDC's dime. I like to assume they're flying coach. (Polk District lobbyist Wendy Dodge, who is going on the taxpayer dime, is probably with them. I'll be addressing the wisdom of that fairly assertively when she gets back. I have asked the superintendent and Ms. Dodge to keep detailed hourly logs of what they do in San Diego.)
Enough with the alphabet soup
Yes, I know LEDC did not write the check for this trip. I know that Wesley Beck (LEDC's current chair), David Hallock (LEDC's immediate past chair), or Jeff Chamberlain -- or some combination or additional person I'm not aware of -- wrote the checks through "Lakeland Leads," the "foundation" for which Kate Wallace is the executive director.
I know that "Lakeland Leads" is not technically or legally LEDC. But let's cut the crap, please. LEDC, Lakeland First, and Lakeland Leads are all angels on the head of the same pin. And I'm done with the polite fiction. The public deserves to know better.
Your organization looks nothing like Lakeland or the schools I help oversee; and maybe that explains some of what I'm discussing here.
A lavish conference built on abject data failure and human cruelty
This conference/Summit is sponsored by "ExcelinEd," Jeb Bush's education foundation, which has been the most powerful establishment force in Florida education -- and probably Florida politics -- for at least 20 years.
The annual summit, like the Florida Model itself, is always built around screwing the 14,000 or so Polk County public school employees who spend millions -- if not billions -- annually with the LEDC's business interests. Kate Wallace worked for the organizers of this conference for a long time before she came to Polk County to do whatever she does with LEDC's money.
Jackie and Kate are flying on LEDC's dime to hang out with the people who believe the children of your city and county are nothing but sellable data points. They are flying to hobnob with people who brought you VAM, SAT-based bonuses, fraudulent school grades, teacher shortages, and endless stupid testing. They are flying to meeting people who don't care about ESE students or the various forms of segregation, beyond the barest of lip service.
And they are flying to "learn" from the people who have produced worst state level testing performance in America, despite all those tests. Full background on that here, although I doubt any of you will read it. But, understand, this is the record of your buddy, Marva Johnson, the former chair of the Florida Board of Education. I know ya'll are friendly with her.
You don't get to be an unelected shadow School Board out of the sunshine
To recap: LEDC's chairman and immediate past chairman have decided to act as a shadow, unelected School Board. Without bothering to notify actual elected officials, they sent the public's employee, who I oversee and evaluate on the public's behalf, to a luxurious week embracing a toxic, child-crushing, failed ideology.
Confronting this fact is a hill I'm eager to die on. And I'm already dead anyway if I do nothing now on behalf of the "bottom-feeder" people who sweated and bled and voted for me in the hope I could bring child-centered change.
[Full disclosure: My wife Julie Townsend is the executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. David Hallock was on her board at some point. The LDDA is a member in some way that I don't fully understand of LEDC. But I assure you she/it has no meaningful influence. Power in LEDC is held by a tight knit and exclusive group that has a direct line to City Manager Tony Delgado. And do I think writing this makes Julie's job and career vulnerable to that group? Yes, I do.]
Because the LEDC nebula is spending private money to influence the superintendent in retrograde and damaging ways, I feel obligated to be much more public about my interactions with them. This is especially important for the "Lakeland Leads" part that writes checks to Kate Wallace, which is the only reason the words "Kate Wallace" is on anyone's lips.
So I'm going to do a little background for the public now before coming back to Steve.
The Fishhawk Ranch Economic Development Council
The LEDC was somewhat divided on me, I think, in the 2016 election. I had a very productive meeting with Steve Scruggs and Brian Philpot very early on in the campaign. In that meeting, like every meeting I have, I was relentlessly clear about my point-of-view and what I would do if elected. I was very clear about my position on state and legislative failure. I've done exactly what I told them I would do, which is exactly what I told all of you I would do.
Brian Philpot gave me a very generous maximum campaign contribution that I think caused him some static within LEDC. Like I said, the "LEDC" that has power is a tiny subset of LEDC; but I do not doubt there are factions even within that group. If so, Steve should manage them better. That's part of being a leader.
I've heard that Brian Philpot is part of Lakeland Leads, but I don't see indication of that on its official documents. So I'm not sure; and only Kate Wallace and Steve Scruggs have responded to my emails in recent months.
Steve stopped responding recently after I publicly debunked the LEDC's absurd Fishhawk Ranch-boosting talking point about the inadequacy of Polk's schools in attracting more people to Lakeland who look like everybody else in the LEDC. See that article here please. It provided LEDC guidance on how to respond if some rich out-of-town executive claims he/she wants to live in Fishhawk "because of the schools." I also told them to call me anytime that happens.
LEDC's reaction was to cut off contact.
As for Kate Wallace, there is a universe of people who can document my good faith efforts to engage her and loop her into community-building education efforts. Steve Scruggs and Kate herself can document it. And I have voluminous email correspondence.
No, Wesley Beck, Kathryn LeRoy was not "out of town talent"
Now for the Lakeland Leads guys on this sheet.
I've never met Jeff Chamberlain. I wouldn't recognize him. I have nothing to say about him.
I know David Hallock a little; and I've always had pleasant interactions. I had a good, casual, general meeting with Steve Scruggs, Brian Philpot, David Hallock, and maybe somebody else who I can't remember, at Hillcrest Coffee some time after the 2016 election.
I remember discussing two issues with Hallock at the Hillcrest meeting and afterward:
1) We both thought Daryl Ward, the just retired principal of Harrison School of the Arts, had the skill set to be an excellent superintendent after Mrs. Byrd was done. I sought LEDC's help in recommending Daryl, unsuccessfully, for a district-level leadership role as long-term preparation for that possibility.
2) Hallock represented the Academy Prep private school targeting undercapitalized children for an elite private school experience. I'm going to come back to Academy Prep in a different article because I think it provides a good example of how well-overseen libertarianish choice concepts, championed by groups like LEDC can, in fact, weave effectively and responsibly into the scale and mission of regular public schools. David can speak for himself; but I believe I was supportive and constructive in addressing Academy Prep. I also told him about the inherent problems with self-selection schools, of which Academy Prep is not nearly as damaging as the full public magnet and charter layer has been. I attended Academy Prep's groundbreaking ceremony and have since taken a visit. I find it interesting. Full disclosure, it's funded largely by the Jenkins Foundation, which includes both supporters and opponents of mine from the 2016 campaign.
I've only spoken to Wesley Beck once, on the phone, during the 2016 campaign. I was pitching him. At some point he described Kathryn LeRoy and the people she brought from Jacksonville as "out of town talent" who ran into trouble because she was trying to shake up those lazy Polk education workers or something. ("Out of town talent" is a direct quote. The second part is paraphrase that I will be happy to defend in public.) After hearing that, I concluded that Beck did not know much about public education. And I kind of tuned him out.
Such a big fish; such a provincial vision
I wake up every morning thinking about the hardest, most intractable operational and human challenges and political issues in education. I don't have space to document them all here; go spend hours and hours on my website with the millions of words of thought I've put into those challenges. It's not worth it to me to have "school board member" in my title or resume if I'm just smiling and waving and collecting a check.
By contrast, other than "Lakeland public schools suck; Fishhawk is better," I've never heard LEDC identify an actual problem or issue that concerns them. And the only "ideas" they've ever had come with "charter" in the title.
Without any real thought at all, they started making noises about Lakeland "going charter" as a whole back in 2016. It was useful rhetoric at a time when the old School Board was a passive embarrassment. But they had no idea what was involved or who would do the work. And they gave no critical thought to the community-shredding experience of Lake Wales, which I documented here.
More recently, Scruggs sent me a press release-type article about a high drop-out-rate, for-profit charter chain called IDEA. "No agenda, just sharing," he said. Here it is. All of the for-profit charter chains that economic developers tend to love (i.e. KIPP, Charter School USA, Success Academies) for market-worshiping ideological reasons have high massive drop-out rates that would get a traditional zoned high stigmatized and punished.
I responded to Steve like this: I'd be willing to consider an IDEA school if it agreed to be a default school for a zone and had to take all ESE students in that zone. Then we could run a good experiment. Here's a hint: they won't agree to that.
The cynic in me recognizes that LEDC members have many real estate interests; and I understand that today's for-profit, high-drop-out rate charter chains are more real estate ventures than schools. I hope that's not the nexus here.
Help me tackle any one of these, please
In any event, there are so many ways LEDC could legitimately help if they chose to apply their resources with a shred of humility, in a way that values the lived experience of public education. And if they had a less provincial, big fish/small pond view of the world. Here's just a tiny representative sample that I've thought about hard and worked to improve:
They could ask why the Florida Model has such bad results; and why hasn't anyone power told us? They could run people against legislators, where their campaign money would matter for more than just a handful of development projects.
They can weigh on the proper relationship between the state the state legislature and local School Boards. What is their position on the fact that courts recently abolished much, if not all, local School Board authority? Should we formally abolish School Boards and end any meaningful democratic influence over schools?
They could realize that teachers and support staff are vital public infrastructure -- who also rent LEDC-member apartments or buy their condos and groceries. They could actually advocate for the well-being of the profession, as high-skill/medium to low-wage employees who are a cornerstone of the Lakeland and Polk County economy.
They could demand honesty and an emphasis on human development in all uses of data, particularly in the crushing decisions to torment 8-year-olds based on a reading test just so Florida politicians can game the 4th grade NAEP.
They could take the experience of the kids at Tenoroc High as seriously as they take that of Lakeland Christian or McKeel or Harrison. I've been begging for help there for years now, in case anyone thinks I'm blind supporter of district leadership or performance. They could help with organizational leadership development at scale, rather than endless teacher punishment and stigma of vulnerable communities that don't look like LEDC or Fishhawk.
I am always, always, always eager to collaborate on anything meaningful and humane and ethical.
The activist community and the supporter community
Back to you Steve.
I had an epiphany of sorts the other night during a conversation about this entire conference issue. The people and institutions who pay attention to education as a thing in Polk County and elsewhere tend to break down into two camps: activists and supporters.
I'm an activist. So is Kate Wallace. But we're on very different sides of activism; and we're in a battle for the hearts and minds and trust of supporters. In some ways, we're in a battle for the hearts and minds of district leadership, including the superintendent.
"Supporters" tend to be local institutions: local governments, civic organizations, and economic development groups. They just want the system to work as well and efficiently as possible. It's almost impossible for them to follow the tangled details of how it gets done and who benefits. Education is really hard and complex; so it's very easy for activists with power to mislead supporters about many things.
One of the core goals of my 2016 campaign was to convince local supporters of education that they've been disastrously misled and bullied by powerful activists like Kate for 20 years in Florida. I wanted to convince the LEDCs and the Chambers and the local governments of the world that the activist community I'm a part of -- and yes, that does included teacher unions -- has a much better vision.
It is by no means perfect or infallible. Institutions and groups with structure and hierarchy, including unions, can often act in self-interested ways. It requires constant attention to prevent that.
But our activist vision -- my activist vision -- is focused on humanity, non-abusive use of data, support and development for teachers and staff, adequate funding, reduced human stress, accountability for fraud in the choice/school grade nexus, and collaboration across class, race, geography, ideology, gender, whatever. It's focused on providing meaningful, loving, individualized human development at massive scale.
Jeb Bush's vision -- and Kate Wallace's -- is not. It just isn't. At this point, I think it's based mostly on vanity and power and money -- for the sake of vanity and power and money.
The narrow activism of quiet, lazy money
And if Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads were confident in the decency and effectiveness of what they're selling, they wouldn't haven't quietly bought the superintendent a trip to San Diego. They would have come to a board meeting and said, "we want to do this; here's why it's a great idea." But this fear of public engagement is an endemic problem for the whole LEDC industrial complex in my view.
You should come out of shadows and advocate; don't just try to buy. That's the activism of lazy money, Steve.
By contrast, because I relentlessly sell our activist vision in very public and transparent ways, I believe we've had some success in winning over local supporters. I'm thrilled with the general support and local chambers and institutions and civic groups across Lakeland and Polk County. The LEDC is an outlier.
But I will say this in LEDC's defense: Lakeland First's last four city commission candidates -- Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Scott Franklin, Stephanie Madden, and Sara Roberts McCarley are truly outstanding public education supporters. Several of them border on activists; you should listen to them. I think they could help show you a better way.
A number of us, including the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, are working together to try to build the type of civic support group for education in Lakeland that Winter Haven has now had for a long time. As far as I'm concerned, this should include private and charter schools. I want to collaborate with everyone who wants to collaborate. Kate Wallace has been actively invited to participate in this effort many times. And she hasn't participated.
At the very least, let's get public so everyone benefits -- even if it's an election
I said earlier that this is a hill I'm eager to die on. And this is isn't the first such hill for me as a board member. Some time ago, the issue of arming teachers and staff came up in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Sheriff Judd and I were on opposite sides of that issue.
We had a raw, tough, and electric public debate about it -- in front of everybody -- at a School Board meeting. That's the proudest moment of my brief career as a public official. I guarantee you that no other county in the state of Florida hashed that issue out so directly and substantively as we did. The public was very well-served that day by the expression of honest public disagreement.
And in the end, that exchange helped us come to a compromise -- the Guardian program -- that offers a decent solution to complying with a poorly constructed and funded state law. We took into account everyone's priorities and, in many ways, led the state.
In my view, the sheriff and I have maintained a very productive and cordial relationship. We've had a good one-on-one meeting; and I consider him a supporter of public education. And I was pleased recently to praise him for his politically brave execution of risk protection orders -- in which weapons can be temporarily seized from people who make threats or act on a threatening matter.
You can see that here at about 1:59:40.
The sheriff and I see the world in somewhat different ways, I think. It's a reflection of our values and background. But I think we share a commitment to communicating publicly what we think and propose to do. By doing that, even people who may think they disagree can find ways to collaborate and create public benefit together.
That's what I'd like to see from LEDC. I look forward to the day when I can praise Kate Wallace or Wesley Beck for their constructive collaboration from the dais.
And if that's not in the cards, then I would urge LEDC to stop writing checks to cover Jackie Byrd's travel costs and write them instead to a Kate Wallace campaign account.
Let's get her activism and mine on a ballot and a stage together. Let's compete and debate openly; so the public has a transparent choice about whether it wants to support education based on human development or education based on fake data, exclusion, and lasting failure.