During his Aug. 31 appearance at the mandatory meeting for Tenoroc High School faculty, Tim Harris said a lot of things. I'm going to be looking closely at some of them in coming days. But I want to start here, because it relates to the bizarre and embarrassing spectacle with our financial advisor RFQ.
In this passage, Tim advised school district employees about how to vote for School Board members. He cited a specific professional characteristic that I was accused of lacking during the campaign.
Since I have been on the board, it has become even more obvious to me to be a good board member [inaudible phrase] you need to have previous board experience at a pretty significant level to be an effective leader in that position.
Just think about that when you vote for people for public office: have they ever served on a corporate board or a major non-profit board before they run for a public office? There is something to be said for experience. There’s something also to be said for a fresh voice and a fresh face. [Inaudible phrase]
Presumably, Tim thinks this experience will help one make better, more efficient business decisions. Well, let's test that in the financial advisor RFQ.
A good faith process
As I understand it, there are really only two firms in Florida that specialize in School District financial advice: Ford & Associates and PFM. The Polk District has used Ford for years, perhaps decades. The long-term incumbent board members often refer to the principal as "Jerry." Not too long ago, PFM approached district staff and suggested a debt restructuring that saved taxpayers some millions of dollars.
That apparently got staff to thinking about whether we would benefit from competition for this professional service. And the School Board agreed to move forward with a Request for Qualifications. Now, let's be clear: PFM didn't approach us out of the goodness of their hearts. They were trying to demonstrate their value so that they could get a crack at our/taxpayer business. It was a sales strategy, something that happens endlessly in business.
If we had simply switched to PFM quietly, that would have been hinky and uncool. But that's not what we did. We created an RFQ. We recruited a committee of finance experts who do not work for the Polk School District. And we asked them to rank the two firms based on qualifications.
The committee included finance officials from the cities of Lakeland, Bartow, and Winter Haven. The taxpayers of Lakeland, Winter Haven, and Bartow lent us their time in good faith -- because the taxpayers of Bartow, Lakeland, and Winter Haven have an interest in ensuring that your school district leadership supports our teachers and staff with effective financial policies.
The scoring was clear. The committee believed PFM had more resources and better capability to do the work. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, despite my supposed lack of major board experience. But it wasn't.
"Never been told was not positive"
Early in the discussion, the fourth committee member, David Levy, who is a retired executive with Goldman Sachs and a community member volunteering his time noted this: "We graded what we saw on paper, based on what you asked...We can't grade a 20-year relationship [referring to Ford]."
But it soon became clear that the four long-term board members only cared about the 20-year relationship. And they wanted to keep Ford. This entire sorry episode had been a wasteful charade. (I wonder how many wasteful charades we've indulged in the last 20 years before I was around to post them on video.)
When Lynn Wilson pointed out that nothing stopped Jerry Ford from suggesting the same idea that PFM suggested, Tim Harris replied:
"I think he was resting his case on the fact he had a 20-year working relationship that he had never been told was not positive."
And here you see Tim's governing philosophy encapsulated in one beautifully articulate sentence.
If relationship matters more than performance, initiative, and capability, how does any new provider of anything crack the $1.4 billion taxpayer budget we oversee? How do we better broaden our base of business to minority-owned firms? How do verify that we're getting the most value from our vendors. How do we innovate?
Let's be clear again: I'm tough on staff from time to time. But they did their jobs here, in every way that I can see. This is entirely the doing of the long-term incumbent "experienced" elected board members. They made the call, overruling everybody and wasting everybody's time and taxpayer money. That's why we need to replace the three that are up for re-election in 2018.
Government and business
Here is the video of the work session. The financial advisor discussion starts at about 39:00. You can hear the long-term incumbent board members give their positions starting about 54:00. You can hear me express my bafflement at about 59:20.
You should watch the video all the way through and listen to Kay Fields, Hazel Sellers, Tim Harris, and the chronically absent Lori Cunningham (she texted in her point-of-view) say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to this committee of community members donating their taxpayer time to us. In fairness, Hazel, who is a very nice person, sort of indicated she might be open to following the RFQ findings. So this might not be a totally done deal. But it felt done in the moment.
And you should watch me react. Watch my body language. I was incredulous. I thought this board had exhausted its capacity to shock me. I was wrong.
As I said at time:
"Nobody is entitled to business. This is a competitive process. I thank the staff for bringing things forward. I don't have a dog in this fight. I don't know either of these [firms].....We asked these nice people to evaluate both. They gave us a number. We've got way too many we've done this for years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years and years here...
...This seems like common sense governance. Let people compete for the public's money...I'm baffled that this even controversial."
There's an old trope about running government like a business. Government isn't a business. It does not aim to make profit for owners and shareholders. It aims to provide public service effectively and efficiently. Those are different missions. But many of the same principles of management do apply. And it's always darkly amusing how often "run government like a business" people ignore their own lame talking points. Perhaps it takes a supposed liberal to remind them what "running government like a business," not a special club, looks like.
Until we all make them remember, all I can say to you is what I said to the committee members at the end -- with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
"Sorry for wasting your time, fellas. I don't know what to say."