Run a thought experiment with me.
Imagine that Sen. Kelli Stargel, Gov. Rick Scott, and the rest of your Florida state government forced your Polk County Commission to withhold $160 million* from Sheriff Grady Judd's budget for protecting Polk residents since 2014. $48 million in the current year alone. Imagine the County Commission had no ability to vote on it. It was simply dictated by Stargel and Scott and the rest. Then imagine that Stargel evaluated Judd's deputies from Tallahassee and hung a performance score on them using this formula:
Now imagine Stargel and Scott ordered Sheriff Judd to pay and deploy his deputies based on that equation. And then after all of that, imagine Stargel gave the Sheriff's Office a "grade" based on whether murders went up or down in any given year and a hundred other variables thrown together in a formula so incoherent it takes 40 pages to explain it. And now imagine she regularly insulted the sheriff and his deputies, for good measure.
What do you think Grady Judd would do if that was his reality?
I have a hypothesis. It involves a lot of press conferences and cameras and colorful Gradyisms. If he gave me a call, I'd stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him and nod like a lapdog.
*[Billy note] The number on my picture says $128 million because I can't figure out how to edit the picture with my limited technology at hand. That's embarrassing, I know. Our district finance people recently rechecked my estimate and found the correct number to be $160 million over five years.
The graveyard dead truth
As a Polk County School Board member trying to bring sweeping change and renewed support to public education, the thought experiment above IS my reality. I am not exaggerating. I am not exaggerating. I'm telling you the graveyard dead truth.
Stargel and Scott and your state government have prevented our teachers and staff from benefitting from any rising property values in Polk County by imposing the rollback rate on local school property taxes since 2014-15. If I had the power, I would return us to the 2014-15 millage rate. I never would have dropped it. But local board members don't have that power. Tallahassee keeps it for itself; and it has continually acted to make public education stakeholder lives harder.
That's just a fact.
And what does this mean for the people of public education?
If Kelli Stargel and Rick Scott had not forced the local millage rate roll back, year-after-year, we would not be jacking up insurance costs on the spouses and children of our staff the way we are today. Everybody in this massive knowledge worker organization would have gotten better raises and have better standard of living and be spending more money with local businesses, a thing that economic developers should care about. [More on that to come in future posts.]
We would be paying our bus drivers better so the shortages would not be affecting pick up and drop off at your local school. All of this is related. And everyone needs to understand this reality if you want systemic change.
If you want nothing to change, if you want bus driver and teacher shortages, if you want steady erosion of public education masked by manipulation of overtesting and useless data, keep voting like you have been. It's a pretty simple choice. That's the referendum we're facing this November, both in the governor's race and with Bob Doyel versus Kelli Stargel in Senate District 22. DeSantis, most likely, means more of the same. Gillum does not. None of the other noise really matters.
As I've said before, any public education stakeholder -- of any party -- who votes for Kelli Stargel or anyone in a position of power in Florida state government is committing an act of self-mutiliation. They have cut you for a generation. They will keep cutting you.
What no local control means, at its core
With the exception of a district's internal organizational culture, when it comes to everything that really matters in public education, Kelli Stargel, Rick Scott, and your state government ARE the Polk County School Board. Let me say that again: Rick Scott is really your superintendent. Kelli Stargel is, in a quite meaningful way, part of your School Board race. If I can get you to understand nothing else, understand that.
And they have decided that your kids, teachers, bus drivers, and staff DO NOT deserve to benefit from the recovery in Florida's property values like the rest of the state has. They have forced the Polk County community to forego $160 million since 2014 that we could have used to ease employee shortages and help our kids and employees with their day-to-day lives.
When you hear people lament the lack of "local control" in public education, the harm caused by the chart that follows is exhibit #1. It shows how Stargel and Scott have forced local communities to give up education funding by forcing reductions in local education property tax rates as property values began to improve after the 2008 crash. No community got a choice in that matter. Stargel and Scott imposed it.
Stargel is a professional property owner and landlord, by the way; so her votes benefitted her family personally, at the expense of your kids and teachers and bus drivers. She chose her own well-being over that of the hundreds of thousands of people touched directly by the Polk schools. That's not illegal or unethical. It's just a political choice you should understand -- so you can make your own.
And before you go philosophical about the very nature of property tax, let me just put a pin here: the Florida Constitution stakes a claim on our property taxes/money. If we choose to live here, a certain, unclearly defined chunk of our wealth does not belong to us. It belongs, constitutionally, to providing free compulsory education for all Florida children. I didn't write Florida's constitution; but I was elected to uphold it. I take that role seriously. If you want to end that constitutional mandate for compulsory education mandate and keep all your property taxes, you should say so clearly. It's an intellectually honest position. And I welcome the debate and the choice. I believe in choices.
A walk through the tangled brambles of Florida education funding
This bit of flow chart insanity is the formula the state uses to decide how much money county school districts receive for operations. It's called the "Florida Education Finance Program." And there's actually a good reason that it's complicated.
Different counties have vastly different property tax bases. Land in Monroe County (the Keys) is a lot more valuable (from a real estate point-of-view) than land in rural Jefferson County. If we simply left each district to its own property tax devices, you would have vastly varying property tax rates and resources for individual districts. Much greater than you have now.
The FEFP is designed to create a state system that is consistent with the Florida Constitution's requirement for a uniform system of free public schools.
It does this primarily by imposing a baseline local millage rate on counties called the "Required Local Effort." That money goes into a cauldron of money along with general state revenue and is then redistributed across the state based on the crazy formula you see above. That's an oversimplification; but here's the essential deal: you contribute a certain amount as a local community and you get overall funding that's broadly commensurate with other richer counties.
The idea is to give all local communities skin in the game so there are no free riders. And, in fairness, this does work much better and more equitably than direct local control of funding would. The variations between funding levels for counties are smaller than they would otherwise be. But they still certainly exist.
Polk has always been on the short end of those funding variations. But in the Stargel era, we have plummeted to the bottom. See below. Click to enlarge.
Kelli Stargel is no Paula Dockery or J.D. Alexander. She's this kind of legislator.
The clip below comes from a few months back, when I asked Stargel if she would attend a School Board meeting this past spring. In that meeting, we had to address her mandate to close, destroy, or turnover to private hands several of our schools because of their fraudulent school grades. I came to call this list of schools "the Kelli Stargel school kill list." Full background and discussion here.
Here’s the core of my exchange with Stargel:
“I do not plan to be there,” Stargel said.
“You do not plan to attend, to stand by your own laws?” I asked.
“It’s not a matter of our own laws,” Stargel said. “I don’t plan to attend because that’s a school board issue and you guys are going to have to deal with that.”
It was literally a matter of her laws. And she did not show up. She never does. But when it comes to providing basic resources for the people of public education, you'll never hear her say: "you guys are going to have to deal with it." She's kept that all for herself. And that's what's on the ballot in November.
[Billy note: I wrote the piece below first, but didn't share it widely in Polk because of all the talk about the insurance plan and collective bargaining deal. So I'm sort of starting with part 2 today. But part 1 is really good, if I do say so myself. It's a horrifying, visceral journey through the lack of humanity that leads education in Florida. Check it out.]