The Polk County School District's budget director recently, casually, accused Polk's teachers of widespread theft. This relates to state money provided to pay for school supplies.
Jason Pitts wrote an open letter to Polk's principals on August 31, which ended with this sentence:
It is probable that many items bought with these funds never showed up in your classrooms in the past.
He did not say why it is "probable." He did not provide any evidence that teachers used this money improperly. He just wrote that sentence -- to every principal and assistant principal -- in a public document.
Why would he do that? We need a little background first.
The applause line and the reality
You've all heard this, right?
...It's the teacher, spending money out of his or her own pocket, to give their kids what they need.
That's become a political cliche, hasn't it? An applause line in the list of character traits that make America great. We've heard it multiple times this election cycle, already. It's true, of course.
But we never hear its real-world corollary spoken out loud. Here it is:
If you choose to teach kids who need you to buy stuff for them with your own money, be prepared for non-stop scrutiny and non-support from most of the people who have the power and inclination to judge you. You, oh generous, self-funding teachers of poor kids, are the villains of public education.
Forget what anyone says. That's how modern American education behaves. Teachers have known this for a long time. Ask them.
You see it in what Florida's DoE and the Polk District are doing to teachers and students at the Stigmatized 5 schools. And you can even see it in how we address the literal act of spending money on kids for the classroom.
That brings us back to Jason Pitts.
The state has a fairly new program formerly called LEAD -- and now called the Florida Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program. The idea is to provide state money to teachers so they don't have to spend their own. I think the amount is $200.
As you can imagine, verifying how that money is spent in a district with 6,000 teachers can be a challenge. We really should just give it to teachers, if we assume that most buy supplies with their own money. $200. Yours. No need to account for it. But we don't.
I'm going to avoid getting too far into the weeds on this. But the Polk district surveyed teachers about how they wanted to account for the spending moving ahead. Several thousand responded that they wanted to keep the program logistics and accounting the same. The district essentially ignored this survey and put a new computerized plan in place. It also imposed a $1 per receipt upload fee for teachers, which may or may not still be in place. This has all unfolded in the past few weeks. Again, trying to avoid the weeds.
The changes are the context for Pitts' letter.
I received a very helpful and informative update from a teacher. Reprinting here.
Thank you again for pointing out a concrete problem. Last year was the first time we had to account for it with receipts, and we did. If we didn’t turn in $250 of receipts, we had to return the portion not used. But that did create more paperwork for our already overloaded principal’s secretaries. And then a state senator somewhere raised a stink because teachers were spending some of that money on, are you ready? FOOD! Not for ourselves, but for our kids. Because some of our kids will work themselves to the bone if there is an incentive of ONE skittle or M&M. Or you do an exciting jeapordy type review and want to reward the winning team with mini candy bars. Or you see a kid that is literally hungry. So the order came down no food. But we were told it was all right to spend our money over the summer to get the things we needed to get ready.
Now it’s about 1.5 months later and we have a drawer full of receipts that we have no idea how to upload. We’ve gotten no concrete instructions, other than if we had waited and bought everything from office depot now, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. Over 60% of us said we want to buy our own supplies, but they ignored this. We spent our own time this summer checking for sales, driving to the store multiple times, or to multiple stores to get the best deal. We got a lot with our money, way more than if we had waited to buy at office depot’s higher price. But apparently it was with our money, because I doubt I will see half of my reimbursement. Assuming I get the instructions, I have been told that I will be charged $1 for each receipt I upload. So when I stopped at Staples twice to get pencil sharpeners for a quarter instead of the $1 each they usually cost, I cost myself $2 of the lead money. Thanks a lot.
If I'm elected, I will ask somebody in my first meeting why Pitts accused our teachers of thievery. If we have widespread thievery, we probably need to know about it. If we don't, that's not acceptable language to use toward our employees. Pitts needs to apologize for his completely unsupported accusation. There's also nothing stopping our School Board or Pitts from addressing this at the next Board meeting.
Compare and contrast
Think about the off-handedness of Pitts' letter. Think about the meaningless teacher platitudes we hear from dishonest people, in juxtaposition with the note that follows.
I received this a couple days ago from a veteran teacher. She was moved to write by the School District's opening offer of nothing -- zero -- for raises for its key front-line employees.
I have literally been lying in a hospital bed since the 14th. I am only 56 years old, taught continuously for 34 years but have now been told I have Multiple Sclerosis and will also most likely need a pacemaker put in today depending on the results of tests. I have been fighting with every fiber of my body to get healthy to get back to my babies that I so dearly love and have dedicated a lifetime to.
But now, as I read these articles about how little the board regards us, in the middle of yet another lonely, scary hospital night, I can't help but wonder..."At what cost?"
I cannot financially retire. I don't know how to do anything but teach. I'm in a "C" school that is under the continuous microscope due to its bottom 300 status. This news just hit so very hard. I've always ignored the pay, the negative chatter, etc because the kids were always my priority. But now.....to know how little we are thought of. To see brand new talented eager teachers so full of promise, throw in the towel after only 2-3 years....to question an entire lifetime career, this has got to stop. Our kids and their teachers deserve so much more.
America, especially Florida and Polk County, has abused this missionary instinct for so long. It's truly sinful. And I can almost excuse you, Jason, for getting caught up in the culture of abuse. It's pervasive. But you're on notice now. Apologize. And do better next time.