Explain what's going on with Akes; don't bring back Jacque Bowen; and don't step backward toward LeRoy's Jacksonville
[Late update 2:35 p.m. Monday: Superintendent Byrd just let me know a few minutes ago that Marc Hutek -- currently assistant superintendent of career, technical, adult, and multiple pathways -- will fill John Small's deputy superintendent role on an interim basis. Mrs. Byrd will decide what to do long-term in the spring. From my point-of-view, that's fine. It doesn't fully address the issues I've raised here. But it does suggest a more deliberate approach than I feared on Friday.]
Two important personnel developments in the last week or so have left a vacuum at the top of the district's organization.
The first is the retirement of John Small, a longtime fixture at the Polk district and Jackie Byrd's deputy superintendent.
The second is a restructuring of duties for Michael Akes, the fairly newly hired chief academic officer and associate superintendent of teaching and learning services. This restructuring has the feel of a demotion.
Jackie Byrd has not publicly discussed Akes' reshaped role; nor has she clearly explained it to internal and external stakeholders. But my basic understanding suggests that Akes' titles are no longer correct. As I understand it, he will be focused primarily on "turnaround" schools, rather than broad academic policy direction.
That's troubling to me. I've heard mostly good things about Akes' performance. He is hard-driving, I'm told, and sometimes hard-edged in his dealing with the organization. But he's also clear, responsive and will listen. I find him one of the easier district officials to engage. And he seems to get things done.
Akes seems to have the respect of most folks I've talked to. A number of people have openly praised him to me. I don't get that for many -- if any -- other district leaders. When I talk to the public about the state of our school system, I have cited Akes' hire as a positive overall development. Moreover, Akes hasn't yet been in place for a year. That's very little time in an organization of this size to have any systemic effect. If a change is necessary, it would be wise to explain the necessity in public and to our key internal stakeholders.
This sudden uncertainty has, very naturally, led to speculation and rumors within the organization. Several of them have come to my ears. The most concerning to me is the idea that Small's retirement and Akes' job change paves the way to bring back Jacqueline Bowen, the chief academic officer under Kathryn LeRoy. Bowen abruptly left the Polk district in the summer of 2016. I was happy to see her go.
Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote at the time of her departure, which happened while I was running for office. You can read the full piece at this link.
Jacque Bowen was not an asset to this school system. I have discussed the performance of Polk’s outgoing Chief Academic Officer with in an incredibly diverse array of local stakeholder and activist groups, teachers, principals, and parents. Not one person openly praised her. They were and are numbingly consistent in their critique of her. All one needs to do is ask them.
To outside stakeholders/parents etc., Bowen was good at saying what they wanted to hear and being encouraging. And then nothing would happen. Inside stakeholders described her academic leadership approach as a combination of conflicting mandates, inflexibility, vindictiveness, and scattershot communication.
The absurd and punishing testing and assessment regime in Polk County ... was ultimately her responsibility. Heather Wright answered to Jacque Bowen, as near as I can tell.
I sent an email Friday to Jackie Byrd telling her clearly that I would not react well to rehiring Jacque Bowen. And I gave her a chance to say the rumors weren't true. She didn't do that.
These two jobs, deputy superintendent and chief academic officer, are incredibly important to the lives of our people and the success of our kids. They are more important, quite honestly, than many department head jobs in local government. Yet, because of the complexity and peculiar structure of public education in Florida, they operate largely outside of public knowledge. But make no mistake, the staffing of these positions reflects the strategic direction of the district. Addressing them is vital macro-management.
As one elected board member, I do not have the power to tell Jackie Byrd how to staff her leadership team. But I do have the power to talk about it. In the last few days, I feel a bit of a strategic shift backward toward a LeRoy/Jacksonville-centric power structure in Polk County. Under no circumstances will I allow that to happen quietly.