Take a look at this short video from 17-year-veteran Polk County public school teacher Amanda Russell. It's extremely humbling and gratifying.
Key quote: "I voted for Billy Townsend in 2016 because I was looking for a School Board candidate that was driven and honest and not afraid to tell the truth. And that's exactly what I got."
About the same time that Amanda sent her testimonial, I received this note in the mail with an unsolicited contribution to our campaign. "I appreciate that you are so real and call B.S. when you see it."
Above all things, perhaps, the movement we've built together since 2016 runs on telling the truth about education and power and how they relate to each other. And believe me when I tell you that our movement is far bigger today than it was four years ago.
I'm about to spend a four-day Memorial Day weekend delivering yard signs to supporters. And I may not get to everybody in that time. Here's the yard sign request form if you want one.
The scale of response this week to us cranking up this campaign has surprised even me. It's overwhelming. The diversity of geography, class, race, political leaning is extraordinary. I think Polk Countians, like all Americans, are hungry for something to believe in. Honesty and community-based public education are a good place to start.
Ultimately, I think our movement and campaign appeals to such a broad and diverse coalition because I respect everyone -- all of you -- far too much as people to lie to you. I'd rather lose my election than lie to you.
Here's the truth about my opponents silly fund balance lie
That certainly goes for any people who disagree with me or don't like me, including my opponent and his campaign manager Ashley Troutman.
I want to tell both of them the truth about a silly lie they both told yesterday on some sort of Facebook ad. Maybe they'll think better next time. Key text:
Fact: If the Polk School Board falls below 3 percent reserves, the State will appoint an emergency board to oversee our budget. We are in high risk for this to happen.
Statement: My incumbent puts us in the category.
Let's put the odd syntax aside.
The only truth in either the "fact" or "statement" is the part about the state intervention if a district falls below 3 percent. The current Polk County School District budget is projected to end at a 4.8% fund balance. That's right at the written 5% School Board policy, which the School Board and staff have all waived since 2016-2017. Each full percentage point of fund balance represents a little more than $8 million.
I want the policy set at 4 percent, officially, on paper. But that's a formality. It has been the real world budgeting policy since 2016-2017. It's how we provided small raises and fixed the broken employee health care plan I inherited from the inattentive old board and avoided laying anyone off. We did all of that, under my leadership; and the finances still overperformed to a 4.8% fund balance.
Lies do not become men of action
Ironically, the same public education-hating state government for whom my opponent is carrying water often cites excessive district reserves as an excuse not to provide adequate money for budgets. Because of my leadership, that's not a problem.
Indeed, because of my leadership, the Polk School School Board unanimously agreed to put $32 million to use in helping people in the last four years rather than hoarding it as dead cash. Without it, we would have laid people off and cut services for kids.
And we still have ended up at 4.8%.
That's not half bad. It's one of my better wins as a board member. I appreciate my opponent and Troutman calling attention to it.
But, as the great Cary Elwes once said in The Princess Bride...
Do my opponent and Ashley Troutman want a $17 million hole in the district budget?
We can have a little fun with the silliness of the fund balance lie; but it masks a much bigger and sadder problem.
My opponent doesn't seem to know anything about education -- or how the district works. So he may not realize that he appears to be advocating for $17 million in Polk education budget cuts right now. I going to try to help him understand.
Neither my opponent nor Troutman will take a position on the $9 million state FRS Heist, detailed here. And they seem to want to go back to budgeting a 5 percent fund balance. Perhaps they can clarify.
Taken together, those two positions take $17 million per year out of the services the district provides to children and out of the pockets of the people who provide them. Perhaps some of you reading this could ask my opponent and Troutman about the cuts they plan to make to cover their $17 million hole.
There are no shortcuts
Lies are a lazy shortcut to nowhere, especially in a political campaign that is supposed to be about our ideas for improving the Polk County School District.
Instead of lying in easily correctable ways, I would urge my opponent to do some actual work. Do some actual thinking about policy and priorities and positions.
Do some thinking about the interests and needs of the people you want to represent.
I mean, I can spend the next three months swatting down lies, if that's what he and Troutman want. But I'd rather debate and discuss his ideas. If any ever materialize, and I like them, I'll incorporate them. That's how real political competition can benefit a community.
But for now, all we can talk about is personal character and what casual public lying says about it. I'll let the public judge.
Serving as a vehicle for somebody else's grudge is a bad reason to run for public office
Indeed, I wonder if my opponent and some of his top supporters aren't unwitting vessels for the lies of a handful of people angry about the positive changes our movement has brought. I got an inkling of this in some of the reaction to Superintendent Byrd deciding to retire.
One of my opponent's most significant financial supporters, Ashley Bell Barnett, posted a really fascinating -- and saddening -- Facebook comment. I'm very grateful for it, though, because it may offer a way forward. Here's the key part:
Billy, I strongly disagree with your statement to The Ledger. You have continually undermined the superintendent with the intent to call a vote of confidence, going so far as to incite your acolytes to rally and vocalize their support for her removal at the January 28th board meeting in Bartow.
Literally none of that is true. None.
I have zero idea, none, what Ashley is even talking about in the "intent to call a vote of confidence." She might as well be talking about that time I rode a unicorn. I have no frame of reference to even engage the thought.
And the second is not only completely false; it's insulting to every citizen motivated to attend that great and constructive meeting. Dozens and dozen of people spoke; but I don't remember a single person calling for Superintendent Byrd's removal. It was an overwhelmingly positive meeting, one that signaled we have an engaged community that wants the superintendent and elected board to collaborate. If I "incited my acolytes," I did a thoroughly incompetent job of it. LOL.
Even more, I'm fascinated by this mind control over blind followers that Ashley and others seem to attribute to me. Go look at Amanda's video again; does that sound like somebody who's going to take orders from me, as if I'm a cult leader? There is an odd little group out there that seems to think that what I'm both wildly unpopular and overwhelmingly powerful at the same time. It's very strange.
Let's clear up some lies and air some grievances on Monday night
It occurred to me that somebody in that group must be whispering lies in Ashley's ears. She got that "intent to call a vote of confidence" thing from somewhere. I regret that Ashley has never thought to call me to discuss any of these false facts she seems to believe. Maybe I could have cleared them up. I'd like to. I'm a radically accessible public official. No one need fear to chat with me.
Anyway, I'm curious now what else is out there. So we're going to use my weekly Facebook Live Town Hall Monday night at 7 pm to solicit the worst stories you've heard about Billy. I want to hear them. I hope my critics will share them. Perhaps I can clear them up. And I'll ask any supporters of mine to be respectful as we try to work through falsehoods or legitimate criticisms.
Indeed, there seems to be an element of grievance in some of my opponent's supporters. Some people seem to blame me for Sup. Byrd's retirement decision. I'd like to hear from them. I think we should fully air those grievances. Let's get them out in the open and see how we can all move forward together.
In any event, the movement that the people and educators of Polk County started building in 2016 is growing. We welcome all comers; but you won't slow us down or beat us with lies.