The Business Voice/PCBA choice: "Major investor" or fixing problems?

The Lakeland Chamber's "Business Voice" Political Action Committee (PAC) is about to start interviewing candidates for its endorsement. I'm scheduled for Tuesday. The Polk County Builders Association (PCBA) PAC is doing the same thing next week.

It's highly unlikely I'll get either endorsement. My incumbent opponent Hunt Berryman has deep business and personal ties with both organizations. Bank of Central Florida, which Berryman helped create, is one of five "major investors" in the Lakeland Chamber. Business Voice is not going to choose my campaign over one of its "major investors."

Likewise, the chair of PCBA's PAC was on Hunt's fundraiser host committee. And you'll see a number of prominent builders among his contributors.

I note this without bitterness or concern. This is how the world of human business and social interests works. I try never to get emotional about cold political realities. None of this is personal.

So why bother filling out the very long and time-consuming questionnaire for both organizations? Why bother to show up?

Because it's important to talk to people who don't support you. I know and like many of the folks involved in these organizations. They are unlikely to support my campaign for change and reform as long as it's in opposition to their friend Hunt. But I fully intend to win these folks over with the only thing I care about: my job performance.

And they need to know the extent of the issues/problems at the Polk District Office. I assure you Hunt has not told them. Just to recap, here's a brief account of Hunt's record in his four years on the Board:

-- Failed to oversee former Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy, who embarrassed all of Polk County with her incompetence and moral failings before the public forced her to resign in disgrace.

-- Knew for a year that Superintendent LeRoy was in a toxic relationship with a key subordinate. He kept it secret from his fellow board members and the public.

-- Voted to hire her replacement with no public search or public notice.

-- Fought to avoid paying our teachers for master’s degrees. Lost in court over and over again. Now we owe $3.5 million in back pay to deserving teachers in a tight budget year, many of whom have already left the county.

-- Provided no oversight of failed technology projects, such as the Local Instructional Information System (LIIS). The failed LIIS project wasted hundreds of thousands in your money and provided no benefit to Polk County.

-- Wasted days and days of instructional time on unnecessary and poorly-designed district testing.

-- Allowed lavish travel by our testing and “accountability” director (45 trips in the last 18 months). This included week-long junkets during key testing periods -- while the testing system in Polk County was bloated and constantly malfunctioning.

-- Allowed a severe teacher shortage to worsen.

Somebody has to clean up this mess before we can make the transformative improvements we all seek. It won't be Bank of Central Florida carrying the broom. It'll be the people our community chooses to sit on the School Board and oversee our professional staff and do the grinding hard work of reform. I'm willing to do that work with all the energy I can muster. Is Hunt? That's really the question for everyone in our community in this election.

So with that in mind, I'm publishing my detailed written response to Business Voice. The questionnaire is very, very similar to the PCBA. In fact, it's identical in a number of places. It took me several hours to write while attending my son's baseball tournament two weekends ago. I hate to let all that work go to waste -- or confine it to the eyes of a small handful of people.

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Candidate Name: Billy Townsend

Office Seeking: School Board District 1

Are there any other issues not mentioned in the questionnaire that you would like to bring before the committee? (I’ve decided to answer this question up front.)

I don’t expect to win your endorsement. But I should.

The business community should support my candidacy because the business systems of the Polk District are broken. And the School Board, including the supposed businesspeople serving on it, has asked no meaningful questions about it. They rubber-stamp whatever the school district staff tells them. And they have wasted massive amounts of your money on failed technology, testing, and other projects that you’ve heard almost nothing about because of the passiveness of the board. This is especially true of Hunt Berryman, who was supposed to serve as a leader. He hasn’t led.

In this last six months, as a private citizen, I have already delivered more meaningful change and professional scrutiny to the workings of this $1.3 billion organization than Hunt Berryman has in his entire career. I am far more knowledgeable about the workings of education, both at the Polk level and the state/national level than any other candidate or sitting board member. Please compare the content of my writings and website to other candidates to verify this. And I have been the most consequential non-union public advocate for Polk teachers in the last 10 years.

And it’s worth noting that on the only measure Hunt cares about — school grades, which I reject — Polk is going backward. I personally do not hold Hunt responsible for that. But he should because he believes in that measurement. So he’s failed on his own terms.

So you’ll all have to decide how that stacks up against your relationships with Hunt, your political leanings, and his contributions to your organization.

Years lived in Lakeland: 17

Telephone: 863.209.4037

Email Address:campaign@billytownsend.com

Campaign Web Address: billytownsend.com

Party Affiliation: Non-partisan

Education: BA English, Amherst College

Occupation: Lead National Consulting Proposal Writer

Employer: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

Have you ever run for office before now? No

Describe your civic involvement

-- Member of Lakeland Kiwanis Club for 15 years. Newly appointed board member.

-- Served as chair of the Downtown Lakeland Kiwanis high school scholarship committee for past three years.

-- Co-founded Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) with Wendy Bradshaw. CBEL successfully led the effort to remove previous Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy and change the direction of the district. It has worked aggressively to simplify and reduce the Polk testing burden in all its forms.

-- Coached more than a dozen youth sports teams.

-- Served as The Ledger’s Education editor from 2003-2006. Directed coverage of the creation of the Lake Wales Charter District. Won a New York Times Company award for a special section commemorating the career of legendary Lakeland High School English teacher Hazel Haley.

-- Editor/Writer of LakelandLocal.com, website focused on local good government and policy issues.

-- Served as parent volunteer for multiple schools, including serving on the board of Harrison School for the Arts.

List any Boards on which you serve: Lakeland Kiwanis

Describe your political involvement.

Support candidates financially and with time as appropriate. Use LakelandLocal.com to analyze and comment on politics.

Politically speaking, how would you describe your voting tendencies? Very Conservative, Conservative, Moderate, Very Liberal Liberal, Other? Why?

I reject those categories. I care much more about a candidate’s good faith and intellectual honesty. My overarching political theory is that government should prohibit as little as it can, while regulating intelligently. And I believe strongly in equal protection under the law, regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation.

Why are you running for this office?

I am running because it is clear to me the current board is satisfied with the status quo in our district. I think the status quo is broken — and broken in a uniquely Polk way.

To begin to change that, I co-founded Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) with Wendy Bradshaw. CBEL successfully led the effort to remove previous Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy and change the direction of the district. It has worked aggressively to simplify and reduce the Polk testing burden in all its forms.

If elected, I will work to enforce change. I will work every day to create a unique Polk classroom experience — one that treats each child as a person with his or her own human story, not a number in a spreadsheet cell. To make that a reality, I will:

-- Lead with energy and transparency. That means confronting tough problems with honesty and moral courage.

-- Communicate with the public in ways that simplify and explain the often intimidating complexity of modern education.

-- Drive respect, co-operation, and common purpose among the many different groups and interests within Polk’s public schools.

-- Engage and challenge all of Polk County — from the news media to the faith community to economic developers to retirees.

-- Encourage practical, useful innovation that helps students, teachers and parents.

-- Help our education professionals execute the mandates that the School Board — or the state of Florida — gives them.

-- Challenge state mandates where they are harmful to the Polk experience.

-- Fight for every child in every school. Because every child is worth the fight.

How much of your personal/business money have you contributed to your campaign? What is your anticipated budget and to date how much have you raised?

$2,000 of personal money. We have raised more than $25,000 to date. Our target is $30,000 - $35,000

What is your background in the field of education?

I have an extensive record as a reporter, historian, education thinker and stakeholder, and community leader:

-- Co-founded Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) with Wendy Bradshaw. CBEL successfully led the effort to remove previous Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy and change the direction of the district. It has worked aggressively to simplify and reduce the Polk testing burden in all its forms.

-- Covered Polk County as a government and investigative reporter/editor from 1999 to 2008 for The Ledger and The Tampa Tribune. Served as The Ledger’s Education editor from 2003-2006. Directed coverage of the creation of the Lake Wales Charter District. Won a New York Times Company award for a special section commemorating the career of legendary Lakeland High School English teacher Hazel Haley.

-- Published dozens of essays since 2008 exploring difficult education issues — particularly assessment, segregation, the relationship between magnet/charter and traditional schools, and the classroom experience.

-- Wrote Age of Barbarity: the Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, about the fight for racial and moral justice in 1920s Florida. Won the Florida Historical Society’s Presidential Citation and the “Award of Courage” from the Putnam County African-American Cultural Arts Council.

-- My three children — ages 25, 23, and 13 — have attended or will attend: Lime Street Elementary (now Phillip O’Brien); Rochelle School of the Arts; McKeel Academy; Crystal Lake Middle School; Harrison School for the Arts; Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse and Montessori Middle School ; Lakeland High School; even homeschooling. As a parent, I can talk with firsthand knowledge about virtually every type of Polk school experience.

What do you consider to be the top 3 issues facing the County, what do you see as the solutions, and how would you fund them?

The number one problem we face is our teacher shortage, which is national problem that we make worse in Polk because of how little attention we pay at a system-level to the way teachers, students, and parents experience the classroom.

I see three broad issues in Polk that roll up into the Polk classroom experience.

1) The District Office’s culture of bureaucratic indifference to the experience of teachers, children, and schools.

2) The absurd and malfunctioning testing/assessment system in Polk County.

3) Foolish and destructive state and federal mandates that we interpret locally as punitively as possible.

We can make progress on all of these items without spending a dime.

Please explain to us the process as to how the School Board budget is developed for the county.

It’s a mix of state, local, and federal funding, with less flexibility on funding sources. Otherwise, it’s developed in a similar fashion to other local government budgets. Not sure I fully understand this question.

Do you support extending the half cent sales tax to pay for Polk County school system capital projects that would increase in property taxes in the district?

Yes on extending sales tax. Not sure I understand the second half of question. Sales tax will not raise property tax.

During a period of economic growth, Polk County’s current tax system generates sufficient revenues to fund the Polk County school system. Agree/disagree?

Sort of agree.

It provides enough to fund the status quo. But I would prefer a better resourced school district that can pay teachers better and develop more individualized approach to child development. The best teachers can do this on their own. But more resources would help system-wide.

HOWEVER, I would not ask any business or taxpayer today to pay more today because of the incompetence of district-level (not school level) spending. The competitive bid process is broken. The School Board provides no oversight. Projects fail. We need to earn the trust of paying community before asking for an extension of funding sources.

What is your viewpoint of school choice, such as charter, magnet, virtual and academy schools?

My viewpoint is complex and multi-faceted. And I think it’s a mistake to refer to “charter, magnet, virtual, and academy schools” as if they are one category. There is enormous variation just within the charter category. For instance, Lake Wales High and McKeel are both charter schools. They have very different approaches and outcomes. Look forward to discussing this with you.

What are your thoughts on voucher programs in the state?

I’m reasonably supportive of the McKay vouchers for special needs students. ESE education is a massive and massively complex issue. I’m open to a range of approaches.

I’m not supportive of vouchers designed to gut public schools. But in effect, a certain class of enrollment-curating charter and magnet schools have already accomplished what vouchers set out to do. I don’t think general vouchers are a huge issue.

Overall, I would prefer a system based on integration, not choice. I grew up in that system and feel very well-served by it. However, the public as a whole, in this generation, has decided it wants choice. It’s my job to figure out how to make that work in a fair and equitable fashion.

Do you support impact fees?

I support fair impact fees in principle. The amount is negotiable. I’m more supportive of residential impact fees than commercial. I don’t like to soak big business projects to pay for the costs of residential development. But all of this is subject to the details of the fee and the needs for resources.

Do you support or oppose special taxes?

Depends on the special tax. I don’t have an ideological opinion on it. As a whole, I support well-resourced public functions, which are aggressively managed for efficiency. I prefer that the funding streams supporting those functions be diversified.

What are your ideas on improving Polk County School’s ranking in the state and how would you look to implement those ideas?

I’m not sure which ranking you’re talking about.

But I reject the school grade concept as a measurement. No one can say how school grades are calculated. They are not consistent from year to year. They are not helpful in assessing individual educational progress. They are political tools. If getting an F or a D actually drove resources and elite teacher programs toward F or D schools, I might think differently. But it doesn’t. It’s just an empty branding exercise. So I won’t be defining success by school grade. Turning Polk County from a C to an A district is not my goal. Because we can’t control it.

I’ll be defining success numerically by teacher and student retention (the teacher shortage is the biggest problem we face, compounded by the fact that we’ve made the profession miserable enough that we’re chasing away our best teachers); by graduation rate; by college acceptance rate; by actual test score performance against statistical prediction. If a rich school and a poor school get the same score, the poor school is outperforming the rich school. I want to know who is overachieving or underachieving.

My plan to improve performance generally starts in placing more autonomy with teachers and principals — and aggressively improving the support culture at the district level, which is non-existent and actually harmful to schools today. That means personnel changes. It starts with the School Board Attorney, who is a powerful impediment to any serious cultural change.

But you should know, there are no miracle plans to turn a C-district to an A.

Indeed, I doubt the state would ever allow it. They will only give out so many As. If Polk gets close, they’ll just recalibrate the calculation. The only thing school grades are good for is to allow a parent to say, “My kid goes to an A school.”

I care about the individual educational experience, which is necessarily subjective. But I’m comfortable with subjectivity. And I find that objective numbers often are not objective at all.

Indeed, I find it rather amazing that people who are generally skeptical of everything government does trust it to reduce the function of a school to a hugely complex, rigged equation that no one understands.