How much does Lake Wales Charter force families to pay School Board Chair Lori Cunningham's business?

A Polk County case study in how transparency makes for better policy and enhances public trust.

In my time on the Polk County School Board, I tried very hard to set a standard for and establish a culture of transparency — both at the elected official and staff levels. I had some success; and I made some enemies in the process. That’s part of taking the power the public gives an elected official seriously — and then acting on it.

In one example, I always tried to make clear to folks my warm family relationship to my cousin Robin Gibson. Robin is the father of Lake Wales Charter and long served as its chief legal counsel. When the board had dealings with LWC — and we had many during my term — I always tried to remember to publicly declare that Robin and I share a close family bond. (Robin’s mother and my grandmother were sisters.)

There was never any financial relationship between us, other than I stayed at his house for a few months when I moved to Polk County in 1999. But I thought our personal relationship was important context for the public to consider in assessing my performance as a board member in regards to LWC issues.

“Purchase from … Applied Images”

Board Chair Lori Cunningham has taken a different approach.

The image below is from June 29th. Edward W. Bok Academy North is a “conversion” charter school that is part of the Lake Wales Charter organization/network. “Applied Images” is School Board Chair Lori Cunningham’s company.

Various folks over the years have told me that Lori’s business — Applied Images — sells mandatory uniform apparel to the students of at least some Lake Wales Charter Schools. She never discussed this as a board member; and I never bothered to track it down or ask about it publicly because I just didn’t have time and didn’t need to hijack a board discussion with imprecise information.

A few weeks back, before that Bok North Facebook post appeared, I sent Lori and the board as a whole a note. I am now a self-appointed beat writer for the Polk School Board; and I asked Lori if she would discuss her business dealings with LWC so I could report on them. Here’s how she responded:

To answer your question, I do not have a contractual relationship with any of the Lake Wales Charter Schools, that would create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict. 

I didn’t ask about “conflict.” The rules concerning conflict are difficult to parse. I was interested in disclosure — in a piece of knowledge the public should have. Detailing Lori’s business relationship with LWC would make clear the personal business incentives she might have to behave in a certain way toward LWC. The same concept goes for anyone else on the board or in government. The public should know your incentives if it gives you power.

Lynn Wilson always abstained from Polk State College votes

For comparison, Board Member Lynn Wilson always abstained from votes involving Polk State College’s charter schools — and I think, all other Polk State-related votes — because he’s an employee of the college.

Again, it’s not at all clear to me that he was legally obligated to do it. I don’t know the rules and law well enough. But just the act of doing it gave the public a clear window into how the personal and public intersected for him in doing his School Board job. I always admired that.

The Bok North post about apparel only mentions one vendor — Lori’s Applied Images. That certainly suggests a guaranteed revenue stream. I sent a second note to Lori a few days ago asking for more detail about the Bok North/LWC business relationship discussed in that post. She has not answered me yet; and she’s under no obligation to answer me at all.

But I do think it’s useful for the public as a whole to have this basic knowledge. And it would be appropriate, in my view, for the public to know how much money LWC has forced its families to pay to the School Board Chair’s personal business over the years.

I encourage Lori to disclose that amount — and disclose any ongoing relationships the next time a LWC issue comes before the board.