Here is a simple fact about Florida/Polk education politics and accountability:
Sen. Kelli Stargel, Florida's worst elected official, wants to close or destroy 14 public schools -- serving roughly 10,000 or more kids -- in her home county in the next two years. They are:
Bartow Middle School Garner Elementary School Griffin Elementary School Kathleen Middle School Lake Alfred Polytech Academy Lake Marion Creek Middle
Auburndale Central Elementary Crystal Lake Elementary Gibbons Street Elementary Kathleen High School McLaughlin Middle School Mulberry High School Stambaugh Middle School Walter Caldwell Elementary
The incompetent Florida Department of Education, who enforces Kelli Stargel's will, is ordering her home district of Polk and other districts to choose the method of destruction. But neither Stargel nor DoE has any inkling of a plan for serving the thousands of kids in question. They'll mutter things about improvement and getting the right fraudulent school grade. But what they really want is to bully your local school district into turning those kids into revenue for unidentified educratic consultants and for-profit charter businesses.
If you doubt me on this, understand that it's not even an option to turn these schools over to McKeel or Lake Wales Charter or Discovery or Berkley. (Not that we would.) The state does not consider those locally grown conversion charters good enough to be "school of hope" operators. Multiple sources have confirmed this for me. We're all on the same team, charter friends, whether we recognize it or not. And it's not Kelli's or your state government's. 7069 was designed to help Academica's business model, not you. In most cases, we already provide your capital.
By contrast, Stargel's 2018 opponent Judge Bob Doyel does not want to close or destroy those neighborhood schools. He wants to support them and help them build ever stronger methods of serving kids. I prefer Bob's approach. And I think punishing Kelli Stargel for her bad faith and bad legislating by ending her political career and relevance would be the single most effective and far-reaching political act any of us can achieve in 2018. At some point, destruction must hurt the destroyer -- or nothing gets better.
Confront. Confront. Confront. And then confront again.
I'll explain the law and details and implications for these schools in a moment. But this is primarily a political essay. And I want to address the importance of political confrontation first.
This story and reality has been out there for a few months now. I've mentioned and written about it in various places. And on Halloween, I sat across a table from the Polk Legislative delegation wearing a VAM-pire costume for the School Board's public meeting with them.
As a refresher, this is VAM, the Value Added Model.
It's the insane test score equation Kelli Stargel championed to evaluate and punish teachers "objectively," as she says. VAM has rained disruption and destruction on Polk County, even after its quiet death last year. It is one of the major reasons Kelli Stargel wants to close or destroy 14 schools in her home county. Thus, it is both a monster and undead. A VAM-pire.
I wore this costume to a government meeting because I will do almost anything I can think of -- from silly to deadly (in a metaphorical sense) serious -- to make our legislators uncomfortable in their awfulness.
How Kelli Stargel sought to harm -- and then destroy -- Kathleen Middle
We discussed, among other issues, our legislators' position on the specific schools they want to close or destroy. I asked Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, to her face, if she thought Kathleen Middle School, which she has visited, deserves to be destroyed by Kelli Stargel and the Florida Department of Education.
"That's not what I saw," Colleen said. And yet, it's what she voted for.
Because she doesn't fear that Polk voters will punish her for it. She does fear Richard Corcoran, the speaker of her House. And courage to face your fears has not been part of the job description for Polk legislators for a generation.
Kathleen Middle is particularly noteworthy, because Kelli Stargel's VAM equation and state government forced mass teacher transfers at the beginning of last year (2016-2017). You can read a full accounting of that atrocity here. The two months-plus of chaos engineered by Kelli Stargel is what kept Kathleen Middle from making the magic "C" level on the fraudulent grade scale. It missed it by one fraudulent point. Otherwise, it would not be on this kill list.
Now Stargel is eager for Kathleen Middle to close or turn its kids over to unidentified educrat mercenaries, who probably don't exist. Either way, she is bent on destruction.
After my exchange with Burton, I asked the entire assembled group to their faces if they would fight the threatened closures. I asked if they would fight the abusive, anti-teacher, anti-child overreach of the Big state government they supposedly oversee.
Stargel sort of half shook her head with her typical scowl. Otherwise, she was non-verbal.
The others looked and muttered in sympathetic ways; but they managed to avoid clearly answering through a strategic interruption from someone I can't remember. I never could pin them down. These people included Reps. Burton, Ben Albritton, Neil Combee (who has since left the Legislature for a cushy job with the evil federal government just when he was starting to be a little helpful) and Sam Killebrew -- and a representative from Mike LaRosa's office.
What's the moral of this little story?
This is what the entire population of Polk County should doing all the time, in my humble opinion. We should be trying hard to pin down our legislators and forcing them to account publicly for their actions and positions and future expressions of official power. We in the Leadership Class have a particular obligation. The Ledger should be doing it -- constantly. This school closure story should be the #1 local news story. It directly affects the lives of at least 10,000 kids, 20,000 parents, and hundreds of adults who work there.
Carrots and sticks
This is Tallahassee's law -- not the Polk School District's.
We DO NOT want to close those schools or turn them over to unaccountable, unelected mercenaries with your money. Kelli Stargel will try to make us do it. And as of now, with one big exception, our legislators support her. They really do want to close or destroy those schools.
The exception is Denise Grimsley, a Republican senator to whom I have written a campaign check for her Ag. Commissioner race in appreciation of her rejection of 7069. Other than Grimsley, all of your Republican legislators voted to threaten Mulberry High and Kathleen Middle etc. with destruction after actively sabotaging them.
If you think this is popular, you did not attend the same public meeting at Mulberry High School that I did a few months ago. Indeed, you would think that our legislators who support this threat might have the courage of their convictions to explain to the assembled folks why we should destroy Mulberry High for its own good. But they didn't show up, of course. (Neither did DoE, even though they were supposed to.) Therein lies the problem. No one expects them to show up. No one expects them to own their policies publicly.
All public officials, at all levels, including me, should be forced to account. Always. The failure to do so for years for our legislators has caused far-reaching damage. This is especially true in education. Their records could not survive 10 minutes of the same community-wide scrutiny that local elected officials face, in roles that have much less effect on how we live here in Polk County.
All of our legislators are guilty of sheepish loyalty to people who do not live in Polk County or their districts. But Kelli Stargel is most active and true-believing supporter of harming her own people. And that's why I'm focused on her more than the rest through the 2018 election.
Instead of sabotaging and threatening the kids and people of Kathleen Middle, I think we should support them -- and close Kelli Stargel. I will do everything in my power to see that both happen. Believe me, this essay is just a kickoff. We're going to talk about Kelli Stargel's record in the next 10 months -- a lot.
Choose your destruction
To recap: your dead, sexual-harassment ridden Florida Legislature -- led by your Sen. Kelli Stargel -- wants to close or destroy 14 of your schools in Polk County and replace them with nothing. Believe me, the "replace with nothing" part is real.
The Florida DoE literally has no plan for what to do after destroying or closing the schools. They want us and you to simply eat the social impact at the local level.
As you can see, 7069 requires that your local districts choose the method of destruction for your schools if they don't get to "C" on the fraudulent school grade system by the end of the appropriate year.
The choices are:
Close the schools and jam all those 10,000 or more kids into other existing schools.
Close the schools and make them charters -- except no "school of hope" charters want all those schools or kids.
"Contract with an outside entity" to run the school after stripping teachers of any benefit of being Polk School District employees. Most districts, including Polk (we're not the only district with this issue), seem to be choosing three because no one knows what the hell it means and it allows the most wiggle room.
A number of people have asked me, "what does this mean for my kids?" To which I respond, "I don't know." Because I don't. There are many variables. Maybe the state realizes the political liability that comes with this massive betrayal of the governing function and rigs the scores to go up so everybody gets a C. (See graduation rate if you think that's not possible.)
I do know this: our community can't snap its fingers and make new schools serving more than 10,000 thousand kids sprout of the ground like bean stalks.
The truth is you shouldn't ask me what this means for your kids -- although I'm always happy to speculate and console. You should ask Kelli Stargel. These are her closures. You can call her office at (863) 668-3028.
I would like to suggest a fourth option: Pound sand, Kelli and DoE. We're not closing anything or contracting with any of your pet mercenaries. If you're man enough or woman enough to close all those schools in an election year and prosecute me, go for it. That would be a pretty good story. I took an oath to the Florida constitution which demands that I provide uniform public education services to my people. I didn't take an oath to you.
A less radical option
There is a less confrontational option, as well.
House Bill 6053.
It would simply repeal this stupid and destructive DoE/Legislative idea. Moreover, it would repeal Florida's fraudulent school grade system altogether. I'm 100 percent in favor of that. But I recognize it's a big jump for our timid and Richard Corcoran-fearing Polk legislators to undo this whole model. As a raging pragmatist, I'd settle for just signing on to this part, repeal of the threats to close schools:
I have formally requested that our School Board lobbyist ask our legislators to help with HB 6053. I doubt she will even get an answer. Indeed, there's a simple, obvious reason why our legislators will sign on to nothing. There's a simple reason they will ignore and forsake this chance to help our kids, teachers, and schools.
The bill was filed by a Democrat.
Our legislators can't do anything a Democrat does, even something as common sense as not closing or destroying schools the community doesn't want closed or destroyed. Indeed, if a Democrat filed a bill that cured cancer, our legislators would ignore it.
[Quick aside: I'm a No Party Affiliate. I describe myself as an anti-prohibition, pro-14th Amendment, moral conservative -- with conservatism defined by honest human observation rather than religion. But most people call me liberal. I don't care what most people call me. Call me whatever you want to.]
Nationally, Democratic politicians have been just as horrible on education as Republicans. But it's a simple fact that the party of power in Florida is the Republican party. That's who is doing all of this. Its leaders will keep doing it until you stop them. Do with that information what you will.
Our legislators put cheap party affiliation ahead of you or your kids or anything else because we, collectively, have allowed them to fear their legislative leaders more than they fear anybody in Polk County. From the Polk County Commission to the LEDC to the PEA, we're all the same in their eyes: unimportant and unthreatening.
Everyone has expected so little from our legislators for so long -- and then thanked them for it like lickspittles -- that they can't conceive of anything different. No one has benefitted more profoundly from the soft bigotry of low expectations and one-party rule than Kelli Stargel.
Until that changes, our enemies in Tallahassee will continue to harm us. Anyone who cares about the general well-being of their community who votes for anyone in power in Tallahassee today is committing an act of self-mutiliation for the sake of an utterly meaningless party label. Again, do with that information what you will. You know it's true.
Don't fear losing
Stargel's district is not a particularly Republican district. She only beat Democrat Debra Wright 53-47 in the year of Trump. She's vulnerable. But she's not the underdog. She has tons of incumbent funding. All the interests who benefit from how awful our dead Legislature is are writing and will write big checks to her. She may well win.
Her strategy will be to hide from the public and any scrutiny, send mailers that lie about her education record and priorities, and play all the same old anti-Democrat cards always played against Democrats around here. She will rely on the inertia of having R by her name -- and taking you for granted. She will rely on partisan inertia to get you to harm yourself.
I'm trying to create a new inertia that is not partisan.
And I believe that if I could talk individually to all voters in this district, I could talk Kelli right out of office. But I can't talk to everybody. We may well fail to beat her. Failure is always an option. You can't fear it if you want change.
And moreover, public scrutiny of elected officials always has its benefits -- win or lose. As long as I can type, and as long as Kelli Stargel has public power, I will never stop scrutinizing her record. No matter what happens in November. This is how it will be.
Generally, when I write something critical about Stargel's record, her office whines behind the scenes to somebody. I'd urge them to whine directly to me instead. My phone number is 863-209-4037. I am easy to reach.
Let's a set up a public discussion. Let's have a healthy debate on education policy, at the time and place of Kelli's choosing. Let's talk about our records in front of an audience.
Whether Kelli shows up or not, the days of raining anonymous harm on her own people without scrutiny are done. Game on.