Of LEAD money, teacher retention, and how new voices can shape a new district culture

Polk School District budget director Jason Pitts did not intend to accuse teachers of widespread theft of the state's Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program. Thus far, I have failed to convince him to say that himself publicly, which was my goal in writing about this. (More on that in a moment.)

But after talking to him Monday, I think I can say it on his behalf.

Moreover, I feel quite a bit of sympathy for everyone involved with the Teacher Classroom Supply Assistance Program (formerly known as LEAD). The idea is to provide state money to teachers so they don’t have to spend their own. The amount is somewhere near $250. But new accounting requirements imposed by state government -- and enforced by the IRS, as I understand it -- have made it a bureaucratic nightmare not worth the immense local time, effort, and headaches necessary to comply. We're spending outsized effort and money chasing a comparatively tiny pool of money.

Perhaps other districts are doing it better. I don't know. I've heard widespread complaints from Polk teachers about the mechanics of the program here. But I'm not in a position to compare it with other locations. And I'm not sure there is any good, efficient way to account for how 6000 or so teachers spend school supply money -- especially when it gets spent in little chunks.

Gift cards or pre-paid credit cards might make sense; but, unspent money left on the gift card would have to be counted as teacher income and returned or reported to the IRS as income, or both, as I understand it. And one can imagine what might be involved in clawing back unspent money on gift cards.

In any event, this thankless task falls in Jason Pitts' lap. We should all have some understanding for that. In explaining this year's new procedure, he sent a letter to principals on Aug. 30.

This process is an attempt to remove the requirement for the schools to keep and track receipts, and to have knowledge about what is purchased for their schools. It is probable that many items bought with these funds never showed up in your classrooms in the past.

I immediately heard from many teachers who saw that letter and took that statement as accusing them of theft. I wrote about it here, in pretty tough terms. Because I wanted someone in power to acknowledge and address it, preferably Pitts himself.

A reasonable explanation

Pitts and I had a civil, but pointed, discussion about all this on Monday. He told me he sees how people could take his sentence the way the teachers and I took it. But he said we're wrong. And then he went on to explain what he meant -- and the background of the LEAD/Teacher Classroom Supply program from his point-of-view.

Until the last few years, LEAD money had, in fact, been treated much like a stipend. Here's the $200 or so we assume you're going to spend on supplies. Don't worry about accounting for it. So it is almost impossible to document how it was spent. Pitts provided me one anecdote in which he said a teacher told him she spent her LEAD money on a massage to help with classroom stress.

Moreover, the new accounting requirements focused on limiting spending to items that would stay in classrooms. So any piece of equipment or computer program or web technology that a teacher purchased to serve the classroom that does not stay in the classroom is deemed a suspect purchase not covered by the LEAD/Teacher Classroom Supply program. Again, you can see what a raging administrative nightmare this whole thing is.

Pitts said this is what he was referring to when he wrote: "It is probable that many items bought with these funds never showed up in your classrooms in the past."

Moreover, Pitts said he wasn't accusing teachers of wrongdoing in how they spent the money in the past because the rules and procedures were so unclear.

I find all of this to be a quite human and useful explanation.

Issues exist whether I write about them or not

But Pitts and I disagree strongly about one point.

He thinks none of this would be an issue if I hadn't written about it. But that's wrong. He has it backwards. I wrote about it because it's an issue, not the other way around. Teachers brought the issue to me. They brought the sense of insult and accusation to me. And I have the means and willingness to voice it in a way that can become unpleasant for people in leadership positions.

That's a new thing in Polk School District politics.

I am going to continue to give voice to the observations, aspirations, and frustrations of the people who support me. That's what I'm running -- to provide a new kind of political voice for the teachers and parents and students who experience life at our schools. Their interests form the core of my political purpose in this race.

I see no evidence that the School Board and its staff have heard these voices clearly and meaningfully for a long time -- if ever. That doesn't mean these voices are always right. But their perceptions matter. Ideally, if I win, I can use my credibility with the people experiencing life in our schools to broker better understandings and trust between them and district leadership.

The core of a teacher-centered district culture

It's my greatest hope that by providing this voice, we'll start to develop a district office leadership culture in which:

  1. We think carefully about what we say -- and how our crucial employees perceive it -- with morale and common purpose in mind.

  2. When misstatements or misperceptions happen, which they will, we take immediate steps to own and address them. I've already owned and apologized for at least two unhelpful things I've written during this campaign. No one thinks I'm weaker for it. Or at least I don't.

These are important considerations in Polk County. Teachers did not read Pitts' line in a vacuum. They read it in the context of a number of recent hardships and insults, including:

  • An acute teacher shortage.

  • A zero-raise offer made by Polk's smirking labor lawyers.

  • Polk's surrender to DoE's wholesale, and likely illegal, forced replacement of full-time teachers with subs at the Stigmatized 5 schools.

  • A failed four-year legal fight to avoid providing teachers $3.5 million for masters degree pay they earned.

  • The entirety of the LeRoy era.

And they read it in the context of a new "strategic plan," which names recruiting and retaining teachers as one of five priorities. How did that line help recruit and retain any teachers?

I want every district leader to have this question in his or her head when they act. In this case, addressing that one particular line is such an easy thing to do. Why not do it? Let's control what we can control.

Will it fix our morale crisis? No. It won't even make the mess that is the LEAD/Teacher Purchase Assistance program any easier to manage. But it would be a gesture of good faith. And good faith gestures matter, too.