Swimming hard against the stream in Polk, part 2: why I tentatively support the chief of staff position
I was the only member of the old Polk School Board to publicly oppose both the superintendent's large raise and the most recent pay increases for senior staff late last year. You can read about that here. Please do; and keep it in mind as I explain my tentative support for the chief of staff position.
I opposed those raises for precisely the same "optics" and solidarity reasons that a number of people have cited in objecting to the proposed chief of staff position. A key quote from my essay:
Senior directors and above staff don’t live on the edge of economic insecurity the way or bus drivers and teachers and mid-level support staff do. We don’t have senior director and senior administrator shortages.
So why is the chief of staff position a very different issue to me than senior staff raises?
A tool for a better workplace and better functioning organization
There are two great problems driving teacher and staff recruitment and retention in Florida and in Polk. One is obviously money. But the other is work environment. (I'll come back to my approach to this two-pronged problem in a moment.) I support the idea of the chief of staff position because it's a potentially a strong tool for addressing the work environment and overall function of the organization.
If you're a staff member, I think this can help your work environment by making your elected school board, especially the activist element of it, more connected to and effective within the organization. Indeed, the job description for the position opens like this:
The Chief of Staff Shall:
Help foster a culture of high standards, accountability, commitment and urgency within the district.
Provide direct support to the Superintendent, the Board on behalf of the Superintendent, and provide coordination of District-wide endeavors.
Serve as liaison and advise the Superintendent and the School Board on matters relating to the local Legislative Liaison function, communications, and other departments and functions as determined by the Superintendent.
IF it works right -- and that's a big IF -- the chief of staff can become the connective tissue between a much more activist board than has ever existed here and senior management. The chief of staff would have responsibility for the comprehensive district relationship with its active elected board. Superintendent Byrd said this, unequivocally, at our last work session. Superintendent Byrd said the chief of staff would very accessible to the board.
Today, no one fills that role systemically.
The closest we have had is the superintendent's executive assistant JoAnne Clanton, who just retired. And that has not worked well. It wasn't fair to her; and it created unnecessary board/leadership tension.
The practical organizational distance between board priorities and senior staff time, responsibilities, and incentives is a major organizational hurdle. It's a challenge to systemic change, board influence, and productive collaboration with the superintendent. I give the superintendent credit for trying to bridge it. You can see an excerpt of my discussion of this and Mrs. Byrd's answer to my question about the board relationship in the video clip below.
If you want the priorities you voted for in the last two elections magnified and better implemented, this position can help, if it's executed right. If it's not executed right, as I said in our meeting Tuesday, I will speak out loudly against its renewal next year.
But I think it's worth the risk to create this organizational tool. And I credit Supt. Byrd for taking the risk to suggest it. If we kill the position, it will make no difference, whatsoever, in staff compensation. None. That's the tradeoff driving my support.
You can see the full Board discussion here, starting at about 13:30.
Hiring will be everything
Let me hasten to add, if the wrong person is hired for this job, everything I say here would be void. I have communicated that directly to the superintendent. That's because this will not be a comfortable, coasting job for anybody -- not while I have their cell phone number.
A truly effective chief of staff will require near 24/7 accessibility, human savvy, comfort in public settings, problem-solving skills and, most of all, a genuine commitment to stakeholder management and engagement for ALL key stakeholders. The district does not do this well today. This position could fill a big hole. Could. As I said in Tuesday's meeting, Scott Wilder at the Polk Sheriff's Office performs a very chief of staff-type function for Sheriff Judd, although I'm not sure he's called that. But I think he's the gold standard for the job.
The position is also designed to oversee and enhance business functions -- like contracting, procurement, IT, etc. That could help, too, with overall function. But I'm a little concerned that the relative weight of the stakeholder management/board engagement aspects of the position and the business oversight aspects are not clear enough, in terms of priority for the position. I will be watching that closely.
The context of the position: the money shortage and how I've tried to address it
As I said, there are two great problems driving teacher and public education staff recruitment and retention in Florida and in Polk. Both are created by "management," writ large. By management, I mean state government and local district boards and leadership.
The first is obviously money.
The image belows shows the brutal reality of that: the 2.1 mills in local funding that your state government has forced out of your local district in the last 20 years. That's $86 million in recurring money -- just this year. Gone. Just this year.
For context, just $40 million would give every Polk teacher a $6,700 raise. It's a debilitating forced disinvestment in vital local infrastructure. It's the main reason local school districts in Florida struggle to keep people. And for 20 years, our local boards and leaders routinely thanked our legislators for it. So they had no incentive to stop. And voters didn't understand what was happening, because it's complex and confusing. And the schools kept opening on time.
To combat this disinvestment, since my election, I have led the Polk School Board in three basic areas.
I convinced the old board to reduce our fund balance (reserves) requirement from 5 to 4 percent. That has committed roughly $8 million in recurring money to compensation. I will claim that accomplishment as my own, on the management side. The district leadership and old board when I was elected was willing to go to impasse for months and months to avoid doing it. Collaborating with PEA, I forced them to change their minds. That's why we had modest raises for staff in the last two years. That's why no one is getting laid off this year. But you can't go from 4 percent to 3 percent, or the state will take over finances. If I could, I would.
I've pressured legislators and the governor relentlessly about this $86 million annual disinvestment in local funding of education. That helped lead to a few million in state "compression funding" in last the two years, without which we would also be laying people off. The reduction in compression funding this year over last is why raises will likely be very small this year.
I've begun the conversation about the possibilities of a referendum on a mill for use in operations/staff pay. Obviously, 1 mill will not fill a 2.1 mill hole, though.
And again, as discussed above, I prioritized pay for teachers and staff over pay for senior leadership as shown by the vote I discussed above. Here's another important quote from that article.
I should note that superintendent of public schools in Polk County is probably the toughest single administrative job in Polk County. Compared to say, the CEO of Lakeland Regional Health, the superintendent, as a position, is vastly underpaid. But she’s not underpaid compared to peer school districts, based on my analysis. I should also note that limiting salary increases of top staff would be an entirely symbolic move. It would have exactly zero meaningful impact on the classroom. But symbols matter. And for now, I think the superintendent’s $230K salary is plenty, especially considering what’s likely to come down from Kelli Stargel and company during the next Legislative session. So, I would be a no vote on Tuesday for any increase.
The context of the position: Florida education is a bad employer; we need to make it better
The other big problem is work environment and organizational effectiveness.
Quite simply, as I've said many times, the state of Florida and its school districts are bad employers, especially when compared to other large, private sector knowledge organizations. As anyone who has followed me at all knows, employer and workplace climate/culture are extremely important to me. It was important enough that I compiled and wrote this 10-year analysis of unsatisfactory leadership culture in the district that far, far predates Jackie Byrd's tenure. I don't think any board member or organizational consultant in the history of Florida school boards has ever written anything quite like it about their own own district.
Responding to great pressure from the new School Board, in which Lisa Miller and Sarah Fortney have made a powerful directional and cultural difference, the superintendent and staff have begun to respond to workplace climate and organizational culture in some systematic ways.
The most important, by far, is the comprehensive school behavior response plan. Let's park that for now, too, except to say that its successful implementation is my number one internal priority for the year.
Another, lesser discussed step, is a leadership and cultural assessment program. Frankly, I expected much more hostile reaction to that effort than we got. It's a similar "optics" issue to the chief of staff. I wrote about it here as part of a larger article about district progress. Here's the key excerpt:
In essence, we’re paying an organizational leadership consultant, Emily Rogers, to lead a year-plus long organizational culture assessment and development process among our top leaders. It could cost up to $85,000 or so. It’s built around 360 degree feedback of top leaders, listening to the people who answer to our leaders, and instilling a sense of productive cultural self-criticism.
But I can hear the social media eyerolling right now: you’re going to pay a consultant to teach your leaders how to lead? Anticipating that, I questioned Rogers and staff pretty hard during the meeting, starting about 2:28:45, on a number of fronts. Please watch it. I summed up like this:
“I see evidence just today of some good cultural change. This will all be an ongoing process; but it needs to be a real process. If it’s not real, if it’s just go through the motions, then we’re all at risk for it. So let’s make it real.”
I’m willing to risk general consultant-hatred and support this for several important reasons:
It is responsive: I’ve been advocating relentlessly for — and trying to drive — a beneficial change in Polk’s longstanding organizational leadership culture. At our last strategic plan meeting, the School Board as a whole emphasized leadership and workplace environment as crucial issues. So now here is Superintendent Byrd, and the senior staff, all of whom are comparatively new to Polk, taking steps to address a priority for me and the board. I think I owe it to them — and to my own commitments — to support their effort and give them a fair chance to show results from it.
2) An investment in stakeholder quality of life: I view this as investment in the quality of life of the people who answer to these leaders. If we can instill and sustain a transformed culture of collaboration and constructive self-criticism from our senior leadership, it will translate to better quality of life for our employees. It will make us a better employer. And that will enhance the experience for the kids we serve.
3) Transcending incentives at scale is very, very hard: Achieving number 2 is not as easy as you would think. And it’s not because anybody is an inherently bad person or leader. That’s why “you’re going to pay a consultant to teach your leaders how to lead” is not correct, in my view. Instead, we’re trying to create a leadership culture that transcends the bad, inhuman organizational incentives that are imposed both from Tallahassee and the cultural history here. We’re trying to instill an institutional leadership culture of swimming hard against the stream. I think that effort is worth the money, the help, and the personal political risk.
Because the Florida Model is so defined by gameable numbers, it takes Herculean administrative effort to emphasize a culture of humanity and development. The time and energy our school leaders devote to strengthening school climate, behavior, and humanity is, literally, time they cannot spend driving up the gameable numbers to secure their jobs.
In taking time to really work through behavioral and climate issues, we’re asking them to put themselves at risk personally and professionally. Many, many, many leaders do that instinctively. But it is not fair to just assume that everyone transcends their personal and professional incentives. And at the same time, nothing in local public services matches the scrutiny and daily potential for human disaster as taking responsibility for 105,000 children and the adults who serve them every day. In any district. Anywhere.
That is why Jackie Byrd has the toughest administrative leadership job in Polk County, bar none.
To effectively re-orient culture around all of that probably requires a focused effort led by an honest broker. It requires leadership to listen and perceive the points-of-view of the people they lead in a systematic way. I’m hoping that Emily Rogers will do that for us. I’m encouraged that she’s not actually an education person — but an organizational leadership expert.
I think a lot of educational leaders would benefit from people-friendly development approaches that big knowledge organizations and businesses follow. Those places tend to be good places to work because they need good people, just like we do. I know that from personal experience. And I’m willing to risk the downside of this for the potential upside or becoming a better workplace.
For me, this identical argument applies to the chief of staff role. It's a modest investment in giving you a better workplace and the public a school district with a better business function. Killing the chief of staff position kills that possibility without any benefit except immediate symbolic satisfaction.
It might -- might -- cut off your nose to spite your face.
And as your elected board member, I can't do that. Not even if you want me to. I'd rather you vote me out of office. I've always told you that you're powerful; and I never discourage demonstration of it. Even if I'm the demonstration. I would be sad if I couldn't advocate and fight for you any more; but otherwise my life would be fine.
Preparing ourselves for the change in the stream
I created a metaphor in part 1 of this series about the reality of the relationship of districts to the state governance of public education.
In Florida, all 67 county school districts are like salmon swimming upstream against the current created by the grifters and Pastor Tigers and Arzas and “legislators” in Richard Corcoran’s Tallahassee. If that current does not change, we will, eventually, run out of strength, disgorge our eggs, and die. All of us, from Monroe to Orange to Escambia. That Tallahassee current is inexorable. And it has a goal: death. We need to be clear-eyed about this.
It’s our job, as public education advocates and leaders, to keep swimming as hard as we can at the local level, to stay alive, so that when the current finally changes, we’re able to take full advantage.
If you doubt this stream exists for everybody, take a look at Orange County, an "A" district on the fraudulent scale, and probably the best funded district in Florida.
Orange already has the mill for operations, like a lot of our neighboring and competing counties. And it still suffers through a number of the same issues we do. Watch this speech from Orange County board member Karen Castor Dentel, who I'm proud to call a friendly acquaintance. I'm certainly up for a #RallyinTally, by the way.
If Orange is swimming against the stream, everybody is.
But the existence of that current that's trying to kill us all is not an excuse not to do what we can at home to prepare for the moment when the current changes. I think that time is coming; I really do. The public across the state is already there, way ahead of our horrible legislators and Board of Education and Commissioner of Education. In many ways, they're ahead of local district leadership, too. We need to get on board as well, in every way possible.
I see the chief of staff position as an effort to enhance the homefront now and position us for much better function when we get a better state government. It has very little downside risk beyond my own political well-being, which isn't important. And it has the potential to help you, which is what I care about.
It's an expression of optimism in our own power and purpose. It's belief in our future. And above all, as an elected official, I believe I owe everyone belief in the future.