The Red Weekend, part 1: the great and happy re-branding of Polk County
How do Floridians see Polk County educators and its public today, in the aftermath of the Red Weekend?
A model? An inspiration? A cross-partisan political path forward toward a humane and honest state education system? Yes, they see us as all of those things.
I'm not kidding. Media -- and people on social media -- across Florida have been raving about the courage and energy of our people. And our wider community.
FSU Physicist Paul Cottle wrote a beautiful homage to Polk's math and science teachers as the Red Weekend unfolded. Go read it at the link below. He gave it this title:
"The Polk County educators I met this summer are gifted and passionate experts. My advice to their community and state policy-makers is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy."
(It's worth noting that Board Members Kay Fields and Sarabeth Reynolds boycotted Cottle's long-planned visit to Polk to interact with the board and our people, for reasons I still don't understand.)
Immediately after the rally, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a spectacular op-ed piece by a former teacher and current business consultant now running for School Board in Sarasota County. His name is Nick Guy. I don't think I know or have met him. But he's smart; and he's looking to Polk County an example and a leader. Here's a long excerpt for the op-ed:
This is no longer a political issue; it’s a moral one.
The tip of the spear in recent days materialized somewhere many would have never imagined a few years ago. But today that story is much different.
Polk County’s leap to the forefront was developing long before Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s legal arm of the Department of Education sent a threatening email intended to intimidate the approximate 1,200+ Polk staff preparing to head to our capital. When reality kicked in and his ability to fire them was exposed as nonexistent, it ignited something across the education spectrum. Polk’s enthusiasm was contagious.
So enthusiastic was the education community in Polk, a rally was held in Lakeland the same day by those that couldn’t make it to Tallahassee. Around 550 people showed up. When the 13 buses from Polk arrived in our capital, their group walked into a crowd erupting with applause and chants of “We are Polk.”
I spoke briefly with a few teachers and leaders from Polk asking how they built such a strong movement. Having school board members that support and defend public education helped. Having union leaders organizing school to school helped. Having parent-teacher organizations and other community groups actively support them helped. But the secret sauce was something we slightly lack locally: They communicated and worked towards the clear goal of fixing the problem, not attacking each other.
Imagine if there were 20, 30, dare I say 60 other Polks organizing in Florida. Imagine the generations who would benefit if this were achieved.
When's the last time you heard Sarasota County openly envy Polk County? When's the last time people across the state said, "So enthusiastic was the education community in Polk..." or "how they built such a strong movement?" If I were a DoE grifter, that op/ed would worry me. It's a sign of infection; except we're actually the white blood cells coming after the sickness.
If your job is to sell Polk County in any way, and you can't sell what Paul Cottle and Nick Guy have to say about your community and its educators...
...Or you can't sell this...
...Or you can't sell this...
...call me, and I'll sell it for you.
And if you live in such dismal, bitter head space that you can't take personal joy in this, I just feel sorry for you as a human being and wish you peace. I take great joy in it. I find it soul-filling. And I'm not apologizing to anybody for that.
Smile, Bitter Bill Thompson.
Case in point for the dismal head space: the official voice of the hedge fund otherwise known as The Ledger. Editorial Page editor Bill Thompson doesn't get a link from me. I don't link my readership to writers too lazy to leave the office or ever attend a School Board meeting.
But Bill wrote a sociologically fascinating, and classically passive-aggressive, editorial on Friday. The tone was backhandedly supportive, but actually quite resentful and dead silent on the idea of celebratory teacher joy and pride in the community. It started with the title: "When Teachers Skip School," which makes a pretty nice counterpoint to Paul Cottle's headline wouldn't you say?
Here's Bill's thesis statement, sort of:
Teachers obviously have the prerogative under the First Amendment to exercise their rights to protest and seek redress of grievances. We may disagree with some of their points, but we believe they wanted to make a principled stand against the status quo. We think they do want to provide Polk County’s children a top-notch education.
That said, however, their rights, as with other rights under our system, are not absolute. And this situation was botched so badly that parents and taxpayers should really be concerned for the future.
This dude looked at what "his" community and its educators did -- and had a giant sad. He feels "concerned" for the future -- not excited -- because of it. What a sad sad sad little man. What a dark heart. I don't know what one can do to reach such a person. Pity him. Seriously.
On a lighter note, I find it hilarious that Bill uses the phrase "this situation was botched so badly," but can't identify a single botcher by name. He does imply villainy by me at one point, using his patented Voldemort technique. Whenever Bill references me in an editorial, it always seems to be as "he-who-must-not-be-named." In this case, Bill Voldemorted me in order to fully excuse the Department of Education and its General Counsel Matthew Mears for threatening the livelihoods of 1,600 members of the Polk County community.
Polk teachers would undoubtedly disagree that their protest amounted to a strike that could have gotten them terminated. But Mears’ point is easy to see - especially since one School Board member sympathetic to the teachers’ cause openly referred to Monday’s absences as a “mini-strike.”
That "one School Board member" is me, I assume. I wrote a piece on the Wednesday before the rally called: The Red Monday “strike” and the collective bargaining rejection: the teacher party begins to demonstrate its power.
I can't find any evidence that I ever used the term "mini-strike;" but Bill has been known to get things wrong, especially about teachers.
I did say "faux one-day 'strike'," which does not mean the same as "mini-strike." It literally means "not real" rather than "tiny." I learned that in public school. We'll talk more about what I actually said -- and how flattered I am to be credited for any reaction to it -- in a moment.
Smile, legislators. Smile, Lakeland Leads.
Bill Thompson's dismal head space extended, of course, to our legislators. Here's what Kelli Stargel after several days of hiding.
"I’m all for teachers being a part of that discussion, but a union-driven disruption, which affects student learning and creates problems for families and employers, interrupts rather than encourages this conversation.”
I just want to remind you that Kelli Stargel is the lawmaker behind VAM -- and so many other willfully designed disruptions of your children's lives. She's casually disrupted more classrooms and harmed more lives than any teacher possibly could in a life-time. She is mindless disruption of education, personified. I hope she answers for it here in Polk County for the rest of her life.
The remaining Polk delegation is little better. Their jaws were wired together so tightly with hatred or cowardice over the Red Weekend that I'm worried they all cracked their teeth. In fact, I have actual footage of the Polk delegation when it become public that the government they supposedly oversee threatened to summarily fire 1,600 of their fellow Polk Countians in their names.
The Red Weekend also posed a giant missed opportunity for Lakeland Leads, the supposed Lakeland "education think tank," to make a positive contribution to its community and educators. It's hard to have "Leads" in the title of your thing if your thing doesn't try to "lead" -- or even have a presence -- in a moment of profound importance to public education in your community.
Maybe next generation?
I'd love for my Dark Lord energy to get the credit, but...
Let's come back to this sentence from Bill Thompson.
But Mears’ point is easy to see - especially since one School Board member sympathetic to the teachers’ cause openly referred to Monday’s absences as a “mini-strike.”
If Bill wants to credit me for manipulating DoE into doing the stupidest -- and most galvanizing -- thing it could have possibly have done to advance what I'm trying to accomplish, I'm happy to take a bow. I'll have it chiseled into my tombstone. I'm happy to run for re-election on it.
But I really don't think I can take much credit. I don't think I'm that good. Here's what I actually wrote in that "strike" piece. Note the parts in bold:
At 7 a.m. Monday morning, I’ll be hopping on one of the chartered buses leaving Polk County for “Red for Ed” public education rally in Tallahassee that opens the Legislative Session. I won’t be alone. I am told that roughly 800 Polk teachers have already declared that they are taking Monday off for the rally — or in solidarity.
That’s more than 10 percent of the Polk teaching force. If you extrapolate that to the roughly 180,000 teachers in Florida, we could have 20,000 or more teachers in Tallahassee on Monday for the rally. I am told that district leadership is scrambling in emergency mode to address what amounts to a one-day strike. “Strike” is my word, and only as an observation. Teacher “strikes” are illegal; and no one taking the day has said they’re going on “strike.”
But consider the alternative to a faux one-day “strike,” dear public.
The ongoing teacher shortage in Polk County and Florida is a permanent, ongoing lockout engineered by your state government — engineered by Kelli Stargel, Richard Corcoran, Jeb Bush, and all the various instruments of Florida’s terrible failed education approach.
The women and men taking Monday off to fight for their humanity — and that of your kids — could have quit education altogether. Many, many, dedicated educators already have. I would have, if I were one of them. But the women and men rallying in Tallahassee are tougher than me and morally superior to me — and to most people I know. Again, I thank them.
If that passage provoked this entire event, then good for me -- even though I'm sorry it stressed out our people. But that can't possibly be true; because no one in power anywhere reads what I write -- or so I'm told.
The great rebranders of Polk County
No, I think we have to give all the credit to those people I cited who "are tougher than me and morally superior to me." They did the hard, brave work of radically changing how Florida sees Polk County. As Nick Guy noted, we've been chipping away at that perception here since the Starbucks Rebellion back in 2016 sent Kathryn LeRoy packing.
That work -- and three extraordinary days last week -- has done more to change how the outside world perceives Polk County and its education system than 25 years of slavish obediance to the state. Our educators did far, far more in a matter of hours to rebrand Polk County than all the leaders of the last 25 years combined. They did far more in a matter of hours than 25 years of chasing meaningless test sores and fraudulent school grades. They did far more than the conversion charter versus magnet schools arms race ever could.
For 25 years, we ate whatever the state cooked here and begged for more. Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads, who embody the people who cooked all that nasty porridge, still blamed us for eating it no matter how much we tried to please them. Kate still felt the need to tell the Board of Education just months ago that we're all part of a "perpetual bottom-feeding district." We're all bottom feeders to them.
Nope; we are not. We. Are. Polk. And the people of Polk County are done with the toxic inferiority complexes of too many of their self-declared "leaders."
What I'm hoping for: everybody come on board; everybody find joy in this
The superintendent issued a statement a couple days ago apologizing for what happened. The Ledger apparently didn't have room to print my response to it verbatim. They characterized my position instead. So here's what I actually said:
I think it's important and appropriate for the superintendent to communicate directly with our people. I welcome that. I also welcome the unequivocal statement about no punishments. This moment has provided a powerful jolt of positive organizational adrenaline to our people doing the hard work of public education on the ground. We need to harness and encourage it, not smother it.
What's most important now, for me, is that the full School Board during Tuesday's work sessions engage in meaningful fact-finding -- and direct, frank communication to the superintendent and each other. I have specific questions I've cited publicly that I need answered as a School Board member in public, on video, so the public can also see them. And then, on Jan. 28, the wider public, including our people, will get the chance to share their feelings about all of this directly to the elected School Board and the unelected superintendent in a public meeting.
After those things have happened, we'll see where we are. In the meantime, I have great faith in our people to work with great purpose. They have floored me with their courage and decency and humanity. And I would encourage the superintendent to do whatever she can to recognize that, support them, and build trust moving ahead from this momentous event.
As far as petitions, I've only looked at the one to recall me, which I found pretty funny.
Apologies are important, especially if they're sincere. But they're also backward looking. I'm really, really focused now on something I wrote in the first paragraph of that statement.
This moment has provided a powerful jolt of positive organizational adrenaline to our people doing the hard work of public education on the ground. We need to harness and encourage it, not smother it.
Our people have come back feeling good about themselves and energized about their work. That may be the single greatest benefit of this entire episode. It's desperately important to me that we sustain and grow this organic esprit d'corps. It has transformed the perception of Polk County. I guarantee you it is transferring the atmosphere in many classrooms.
Genuine positive energy is a beautiful thing; and happy teachers are good teachers. Just like happy school board members and happy administrators and leaders are good school board members and administrators and leaders. It's my hope that everyone in the Polk district embraces the fierce, proud happy warrior ethos of this picture:
We have great challenges to meet in educating our county's children. Structural, financial, cultural, moral. And we have a state-run public education system run by a state that hates public education. That alone is a challenge we may not be able to overcome. I'm very serious about that. I have no illusions.
But we also have a workforce, if we can keep and grow them, who have demonstrated the will to try. They've demonstrated the will and resolve to meet those challenges head on. The glow of this event will fade; but the memory will always be there, like sustenance. Especially if the district fully embraces it as a positive good, which it is.
Likewise, it's my hope that all Polk County leaders inside and outside of the school district will embrace the will of our people and make it their own. It's my hope that they follow the lead of Haines City Vice Mayor Anne Huffman and Bartow City Commissioner Trish Pfeiffer. Both are public warriors for our schools and kids and people. Both were highly visible in their support of our people. I'm grateful to both. And if you're an elected official or important business leader, and you fought for our people in this crucial moment, let me know so I can praise you publicly.
Because today, I'm having fun and feeling proud and energized. And I'm looking for allies everywhere, from among everyone.
The Red Weekend was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. The Red Weekend challenged the people and educators of Polk County in a fundamental way; and I take great great joy in how we sent our regards. Join us.