Make William Allen, and all elected school board members, earn the sandwiches and the selfies

The elected School Board position is a useless waste of $40K and health insurance if you don't actively help constituents and publicly critique the failures of the state school system. 🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪

Note to non-Polk readers: Those of you who are not local subscribers should know that I’ll write quite a bit about local and Florida issues. In most cases, national issues detonate at home. So I think these are still very much worth your time.

I would wager that never, in the history of Florida, has any local government position become as officially powerless and useless as elected school board member is today. As a position, in its current form, Florida school board member is an absolute waste of your taxpayer money.

To make the position relevant, individual board members must blow up the norms they are aggressively sold. That’s what I did. I made “school board member” relevant by ignoring norms that power likes to impose. And you saw how power responded to a relevant Polk County School Board, even one without any real power but voice.

Why is this important to understand? Because the state government of Florida and its Department of Education are wasting billions in your money — local property tax and referendum-raised taxpayer referenda — that you want spent on the well-being and development of your children.

Tallahassee’s education grifters are wasting Republican money, Democratic money, independent money alike on a miserable test-chasing scam that is grinding up the teacher supply, harming the well-being of kids, and producing, year after year, America’s most catastrophic test results. See full facts here on the testing. Local school boards have no official power — no official choice — to halt this failure.

Yet most do not want to even try to transcend the powerlessness of their positions by truly engaging the public.

The inherent political and policy bribe

Why is that? Why are there probably fewer than 10 elected school board members statewide who consider Florida’s failures enough of a problem to really address them publicly? Why do elected school boards generally fear and loathe the public more than any other type of local government does?

Here’s my answer, based on observation: state government offers elected school board members what amounts to a political bribe: come to a meeting or two a month; take all the local political heat for us from the silly little citizens who experience this dehumanizing grift of a state education model; and here’s $40K and health insurance and a little bit of fake status as a reward. And you might get to run for legislature.

Let’s be clear: this is an entirely legal quid pro quo. I’m not alleging any official wrongdoing. This is a political bargain. And it’s how school boards have evolved over the years into nothing but a barrier of denial and democratic non-accountability between the state school system and local voters who experience it.

Bottom line: it’s an easy $40K-plus health insurance if you play ball. In that model, there is every incentive to limit the public’s input or get it over with as fast as possible.

COVID and the courts have clarified this relationship quite brutally. All meaningful local decisions are made in the state DOE offices, with implementation questions hashed out by unelected staff — at the state and local levels — with local staff generally capitulating.

Local elected school boards then show up and congratulate themselves or complain impotently about a state system they’re unwilling to even study, much less publicly critique and try to change.

This was already true when I was elected in 2016; and COVID and the courts have frozen it in carbonite for the short-term. (In the medium/longer-term, I think they’ve signed the Florida Model’s death warrant. We’ll address at a different time.) That is why every single person of power in this community — of all parties — and state education system was so mad at me and organized against what we are still building.

I told you the truth about this bribe; and they knew it. I used my voice, my votes, and my tiny hints of official power to try to turn the public against this model as much as I could. I disrupted the bribe, a little, at all levels.

That’s going to continue — at my leisure.

Board members can do real constituent service; if they choose

Despite this macro-govering irrelevance, there is one area in which local board members can still have a massive, beneficial human impact today: constituent service.

What does that mean?

It means that when a parent or child or citizen or employee is having a problem with a school or service or administration, elected school board members can be powerful, micro-forces of advocacy. They can be a desperate parent or employee’s only real source of advocacy.

It’s an open secret that Florida school system and district leaders don’t actually want real public input or engagement. The systems are built, though a million different complexities and obtuse interpretations of law, to push people away from the decisionmakers that matter in a child’s educational life.

Elected board members have the capacity to push and pressure those systems to deliver better attention and outcomes for individual kids. But that takes endless time and effort. It offers virtually unlimited opportunity for work. I did it relentlessly as a board member, largely out of public sight. I recently had a friend tell me he hadn’t seen me in four years. Constituent service is the main reason why.

The dozens and dozens of testimonials we collected during the campaign attest to this work. It is, by far, what makes me most proud about my tenure. It included many of my best successes, which were at the individual level. Again, this relates to seeing the board member role as one of advocacy for the people experiencing the state school system locally — as I did and do.

In my observation, in Polk County and beyond, most elected school board members see themselves as advocates for unelected staff leadership, not the public that elected them. Too many board members see themselves as duty bound to protect unelected staff leadership or some vague idea of “the district” against even the legitimate concerns of the public.

And I can tell you this from my tenure: at least 90 percent of parent or employee complaints were legitimate and rooted in something real that needed fixing. That’s a significantly higher rate than I expected.

[Late add: To be clear, these “complaints” don’t generally have villains. Almost everybody is trying, here. Running a giant public school system is hard and complex in the best of times. And this isn’t that. I’m actually quite sympathetic to everyone at all levels suffering to keep schools functioning at all during COVID-19.

In my experience, staff wants to solve these problems and works to do that. It’s just that the scale of work and demand on the ground in schools is enormous — and the human capacity to address them all is lacking. So sparing the attention and energy to fix an individual problem isn’t easy. That’s where advocacy comes in.]

These individual, micro human issues, which most often emerge from macro-political context, do not fix themselves. They require advocacy, which sometimes means confrontational and politically risky advocacy.

Call William with your problem; and make him ignore you or tell you “no”

That brings us briefly to William Allen.

This notion of constituent service came up during a campaign debate sponsored by Lake Wales folks.

And William was clear: if a constituent calls him with a problem, he’s just going to refer that problem to “staff” and wash his hands of it.

I pointed out at the time: “Make sure you understand that. If you’re a parent with a problem with staff, he’s not going to help you.”

Faced with that reality, constituents with a problem will be tempted to avoid William altogether and go first to the elected board members we still have who work very, very hard on constituent service: Lisa Miller and Sarah Fortney.

I understand that instinct. Lisa and Sarah are great great constituent advocates. Polk is unusually blessed to have them. Most districts don’t have them. They are the easiest path to help — because they will help you in a way no other board member will.

But I would urge you not to reward William, or any other board member — for thinking he has no role in helping you. Go to him first with a problem. Make him shunt you off to bureaucracy — or rise to the occasion. William lied about literally everything else during the campaign; so maybe he was lying about not helping you, too. That would be a nice development.

It’s about a lot more than selfies and free sandwiches

William will be sworn in Tuesday. He never really did say why he wanted to be a school board member other than I am bad and school board member is the natural next step for his life. In that sense, he certainly fits in perfectly with the expectations of Ruling Class Club. He fits in much better than I did.

And yet, I hope, for the sake of the public, that William has discovered a purpose beyond himself and the whim of Ruling Class Club since the election. That would be better for you — readers and taxpayers and parents and students.

My last meeting as a board member was amusing, but not particularly encouraging, on that front.

One of the “perks” of being a board member (lol) on meeting day is a little spread of sandwiches or lunch or whatever put together by the district office cafe staff. It’s quite good.

William was pretty quick to crash the sandwiches at my last meeting; and I was quite warm and welcoming in my breaking of bread with him. Indeed, I was considerably warmer than he was in the selfie he took later in front of the District 1 seat.

Honestly, I’ve yet to see any evidence that William is in this for anything more than selfies and sandwiches and the next thing in his life. He has no actual policy positions or passions that I can discern other than vacantly repeating the word “choice” a lot.

Most likely, he’s just going to do what Ashley Bell Barnett tells him to do. And that might not even be all bad. (If you want William to do something with schools in a macro governing sense, you’d be much better off just calling Ashley Bell Barnett directly. She’s smarter, more attuned to public school reality, and a lot richer. She owns William. I don’t think she disagrees with me about much, honestly. She’s just mad at me abut John Small and her mom acting silly. Sometimes it’s hard for people to separate public good from personal pique. I think we can get past it over time as long as she doesn’t try to bring John Small back as superintendent.)

But William does have the chance to be his own man in how he helps individual people — all all races, parties, persuasions, and creeds. He’s getting the sandwiches and the selfies and the $40K either way. Make him work for all of it.

Indeed, make all of them #earnthesandwiches. When they do, I’ll be the first to honor them with 🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪🥪.