Impasse, part 1: Listen to your School Board members lay out their visions of public service

The video below comes from the Dec. 13, 2016, School Board work session -- my first work session as a board member.

This hour-long excerpt covers the discussion of School Board Attorney Wes Bridges' three-year contract. This contract automatically renews every year. It has no practical mechanism for removing Bridges without paying him at least $450,000. Lynn Wilson and I wanted to change that deal. The other five School Board members did not. What follows is almost all of the discussion -- and our reasoning. It's very illuminating. Anybody who cares about the direction of public education in Polk County should watch it.

I will quote a few of my colleagues below. Their thoughts are quite instructive, I think, as we move into an unnecessary and gratuitous impasse with our teachers and staff.

But first, let me introduce you to the "Billy Townsend, Polk School Board District 1" Youtube channel. It's kind of nondescript at this point. But I have ideas.

Believe it or not, the voting and taxpaying public cannot easily access video or audio recordings of School Board meetings after they happen. You must formally request a DVD and pay the $1.3 billion School District to burn it for you. Then you have to drive to Bartow to pick it up.

You can compare that access to Lakeland City government, which has full online access to the meetings of all its various commissions and boards one click away.

I think it's unfortunate that we are so far behind industry standard on public access to meeting recordings.

So I asked for and received a DVD of the 12/13 meeting; purchased a $35 piece of DVD conversion software; converted the file to mp4 format; and uploaded it to my new Youtube channel. It took me the better part of a Saturday morning to figure out how to do that -- and the better part of Saturday afternoon to do it and write this piece.

I am told that the School District does have the technology to make these meetings available and that we're working on it. But in the meantime, I'll do it, as my schedule and spare time allows.

Some crucial quotes

For now, I think the Bridges discussion is worth watching in its entirety. But I particularly would urge you to watch and listen to Hazel Sellers' statement from roughly 14:30 to 16:30. Think about it in connection to the impasse we've just declared with our teachers after offering them no raises.

Here's one key line from Hazel:

"When we go out to get a another attorney, I understand this is the kind of contract they want. We're not going to get somebody with the knowledge, experience, and know-how with a one-year contract."

I find the juxtaposition of that -- and how we view our teachers -- fascinating and telling as we move into impasse world. I think it says quite a bit about what Hazel values and what she doesn't.

I'd also urge you to watch the interplay among Lori Cunnigham, Kay Fields, and me between about 17:45 and 27:35.

Here's a byte from Lori:

"I purposely did not read the newspaper as I was getting bombarded with calls asking me if I had seen what all my board members were putting in the paper. And I was extremely upset wth my group here, who I love dearly, because I don't feel that we should be airing how we feel in the paper before we, collectively as a group of seven, have the opportunity chance to sit and talk. So I don't know how that started, but I hope that's the first and last time we air how we feel publicly, because then people call the others [board members]."

You really should hear it in her own voice. It amplifies the message. She's very sincere about how offensive she finds public statements outside of meetings.

I responded to Lori with this:

"With respect, I don't answer to you. I answer to the people who elected me. I answer to the public who told me they are very unhappy with the way you guys have done things here. And I will not be quiet. I will continue to say what I think. I will continue to say it in a public way. I've made no bones about that. Ever. You guys have had a very, very, very bad four years. You hired a terrible superintendent, and you failed to oversee her. With respect, I think Wes was a part of that. If you had had a good four years; if you had had a good last year, you wouldn't be dealing with me now. I would never have run. So I just want to make that clear. I serve the public. Not you. Not this board."

At that point, as you see on the video, Kay interrupted, as chair, to admonish me. She described the statement above as uncivil. She ended with, "Please be mindful of what you say, because when you say your words, your words cannot be taken back. "

Here's what I said in immediate response:

"I'm aware of that. And I find nothing at all uncivil about being honest and direct. It's not any kind of personal thing. I'm just being clear. Your vision for how the board should behave is not the vision I share. I am not going to, for the sake of getting along or some sort of false unity, going to be quiet about the things I think. That's what I was elected to do. I don't find this [discussion] uncivil at all. I think it's direct and helpful. I'm not sure what you consider uncivil about it."

I quote these statements here because I think they reflect competing visions for what elected public service means -- particularly in public education. I'm going to fight for my vision, which I think the public broadly supports.

Sharing these conversations -- widening the audience for our meetings and important discussions -- is an important part of my vision. My vision also sees our teachers and principals and staff as much more important than our School Board attorney. Period.

In the next few days, I'll be drafting part 2 of this. It'll be a comprehensive analysis and position essay that lays out where I think we are; what's improving and what's not; and why the 2018 election campaign, I'm sad to say, started Friday afternoon about 5:05.