The truth about Hunt's mailer: two open lies, three fuzzy falsehoods, and a revelation of character

Adversity reveals character.

Over the last six months, I've used deeply researched, substantive critiques to hold Hunt Berryman to account for his performance as a School Board member and leader. I beat him by 10 percentage points in August's primary race. I won 90 percent of precincts across the county.

Hunt has responded to this adversity by adopting many of my ideas as his own and lashing out. He's done this in person -- and by spending $50,000 of his own taxpayer-subsidized money to try to create a fake character named "Billy Townsend."

I haven't actually seen the full scary TV ad he did about me. I don't have cable. He hasn't posted it publicly online to my knowledge. But I have seen Hunt's mailer, which I guess says many of the same things. So here's a quick effort at documenting his lies and clarifying my positions. You will see two clear lies and three fuzzier falsehoods.

The content in bold represents an allegation on Hunt's mailer about me.

No leadership experience -- False in every way. A simple, open, easily-refutable lie. You can see my leadership experience and intellectual background detailed at Billytownsend.com. Here is a quick list:

— Member of Lakeland Kiwanis Club for 15 years. Newly appointed board member. Served as chair of high school scholarship committee for past three years.

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

— 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/leader of LakelandLocal.com, website focused on local good government and policy issues.

Promotes federal control of schools -- Another lie. I have written often about the failures of the federal No Child Left Behind law. I have repeatedly talked about the need for less federal control, particularly in testing and flawed accountability measures. I have no idea where he picked up the federal control fantasy. It’s silly. I support federal Title 1 money for low income students, just like Hunt does.

Against school choice -- False. Please see this link for a very detailed description of my views on choice. In short, I believe in honoring all school choices, including traditional schools. I am the parent of an 8th grader in a traditional school. And I have observed that Hunt, like the Florida state government, does not respect the choice of people who attend traditional schools. School choice will not work effectively until that choice is respected. My own kids have gone to every conceivable type of public school -- charter, traditional, magnet, even homeschool.

Liberal, whatever the union wants -- False and silly. My ideology is much too complex for Hunt to understand. I’m supported by teachers and business people alike. I'm working to build an entirely new political coalition — one that crosses party, race, class, school type, and even business philosophy. This coalition believes that all of our children are individual humans, not spreadsheet cells. This coalition recognizes that distant critics and judges are often corrupt and wrong and utterly lacking in self-criticism. It respects the moral function of teaching in action, not just words.

Add layers of bureaucracy -- False. I want to de-emphasize the Bartow bureaucracy's role and push power to the school and community level. This is an especially odd accusation considering the one that comes right after it.

Promises to clean house by firing administrators -- I do want to replace the School Board Attorney. He has performed badly and wasted lots and lots of our money. See this explanation here, if you would like more information. I’m very critical of two other administrators -- Tony Bellamy and Heather Wright. As a board member, I won’t the have the power to remove them myself; but I’m dissatisfied with their performance. I believe it is my responsibility as a leader to communicate that. I make no apologies for expecting our top education leaders to have the same accountability our teachers do.

Divisive out of control demagogue -- You’ll have to judge that for yourself. But Hunt has yelled at me twice in public and threatened me (politically, not violently) on another occasion. He loses his cool often in my presence. I’ve lost my composure once, briefly, in his presence. I apologized for it. You can see that he's also willing to spend thousands of dollars of his own money printing lies about me. I am certainly not willing to do that in return.

Has radical ideas about school changes -- You can see that addressed here. But Hunt likes most of my ideas -- e.g. "change," community-based high school districts, and reduced testing -- so much that he’s adopted them over the course of the campaign. I also think Florida should provide traditional schools the freedoms of private schools. Create an environment that can reduce our teacher shortage. Emphasize depth of knowledge and engagement, not fact retention. Evaluate students by what they create and how they perform publicly. Develop citizenship through meaningful experience. And above all, we should value all of our kids and treat them like humans, not spreadsheet cells. If all that's radical, I'm radical.

And finally, I have written publicly for years that I consider our prohibition-driven national Drug War an abject failure. It kills too many people. It fills our jails unnecessarily with people of all ages, but especially the young. And it strains relations between police and the public. I have been studying, writing, and thinking about this in great depth and publicly for years. I talk about this with police often.

I do not use drugs. I do not approve of their use. But I approve less of unnecessary death, disorder, and incarceration. Not surprisingly, Mr. Berryman’s ad and mailer misstate my actual position, which has evolved over time. I think America should treat marijuana legally like alcohol. And I think we should decriminalize other drugs and emphasize treatment, much like the very successful and humane model in Portugal. The one clear exception to this -- because of its environmental and human cost -- is methamphetamine. It should remain illegal.

It's worth laying out the precise nature of Hunt's lie on my views of national drug policy. He's relying on a piece I wrote in 2011, five years ago. Because Hunt doesn't know anything about drug policy, he doesn't understand the difference between "legalization" and "decriminalization." I have never, to my knowledge, advocated or even thought out loud about "legalization" of anything but marijuana. It is certainly my position today. To say that I want to legalize cocaine and meth is simply a lie.

Five years ago, I did contemplate the idea of "decriminalizing" simple methamphetamine possession -- but not the manufacture of it. The idea is that it would make treatment easier. But I came to believe that is a bad idea, for environmental and social harm reasons. So, for a very long time, my position has been to "legalize" marijuana and move toward general "decriminalization" of drugs other than meth -- similar to Portugal. Hunt has never once asked me about this position. But this is it.

Moreover, I’m an historian. I wrote a book largely about alcohol prohibition and the violence associated with it in my hometown of Palatka. That hard work informed the views that Hunt is trying to exploit for his personal benefit. I know that ending alcohol prohibition in 1933 set off the safest three decades in American history for police and citizens alike. I think that’s an important fact to know. I make no apologies for working hard to know it. That’s the point of education.

And, in any event, the Polk School Board has no power over state and national drug policy.

I’ve come to this position through deep study and care for my fellow citizens. I won’t renounce it for the sake of an election. I hope you can respect that; but I understand if you can't. I consider this kind of intellectual and moral honesty a cornerstone of who I am -- and how I want to serve you.