Here are links to the previous two parts of this series:
Please watch this brief exchange between Tim Harris and me about Wes Bridges' automatically-renewing three-year contract. It's crucial for understanding the political and cultural dynamics on the Polk School Board.
Key quote from Tim -- and my response.
"I also think that if you've been in office for three weeks, and this in your first meeting, you don't have enough corporate history and cultural understanding to make this kind of proposal."
"And yet, I have."
It's also crucial to understand that Tim Harris is the president of Florida School Board Association. In my observation, he's recently spent much more time and effort doing that job than his Polk School Board job.
The FSBA, which is full of well-meaning, helpful people, is the single greatest underachiever in Florida politics. With its built-in constituency, the FSBA should be the NRA of humane education. Virtually all of its members hate the Florida model of education. In reality, the FSBA hasn't made a dent in the Florida model for two decades because it's impotent. It scares nobody. Tim's presidency is pointless for anyone but Tim. Meanwhile, Alabama has a 90 percent graduation rate.
Now take a look at this clip of Tim Harris almost reveling in the powerlessness and irrelevance of the FSBA. He's addressing a local-option tax that the state is preventing local districts from pursuing. Many districts, including Polk, want that option. Don't even think about fighting for it, says the president of the FSBA. It's pointless.
"For those of you who were able to at attend the FSBA conference. The first bullet we have under capital outlay; it was pointed out to us very succinctly. That will not happen. You might as well just not put it on your list. It won't happen. That came from legislative leadership.
You might as well just not put it on your list.
Those clips and that sentiment help explain how my fellow board members and our negotiators have blundered us into a stupid and destructive impasse with our teachers. And how we've done it at precisely the wrong moment -- just as the awful Florida model of education is beginning to crack. We need to be working together with all our stakeholders to seize the opportunities that will emerge.
We face generational challenges and opportunities. I think the next five to 10 years are the most important of my lifetime for public education. Will we destroy it with more teacher-hating misery? Or we will we reinvigorate it through a focus on humanity and engagement and rebuilding the teaching profession?
That's not hyperbole.
If we don't revive the teaching profession and pipeline, we won't have a public education system in 25 years. It will die a death of a million teaching vacancies. And it will die in Polk before it dies elsewhere.
These are profound political and moral issues. You might as well just not put it on your list does not rise to their gravity. Nor does this ridiculous impasse. I'll get to that in second.
Byrd/Akes is better than LeRoy/Bowen. How much better depends on us.
But first, let me address an important point: Jackie Byrd is going to be our superintendent moving ahead. Even if I wanted to non-renew her one-year contract this spring, I don't have the votes. But I want to be clear: I will cast a positive vote for renewal, barring anything unforeseen.
Throughout the campaign and in the early days of my term, I avoided taking a position on Jackie's future. I wanted to watch and evaluate her for myself before committing one way or the other. I have concerns. I think her worst moment has been the handling of the TOP schools last summer and beyond. But I lay that at the School Board's feet and Tony Bellamy's feet more than her. The TOP schools are and were an inter-jurisdictional political issue. Jackie's School Board and local legislators provided her no political help, direction, or support. Bellamy remains a personnel issue -- one of a handful I have communicated to Jackie directly.
Other than that -- and the impasse -- Jackie has impressed me with how she's growing in the role. Here are three key observations shaping my thinking: 1. She has embraced the public leadership aspects of a superintendent with grace and composure. Her schedule is full of public interaction. She has a growing public presence. And I think she is working hard to break down the institutional distance between Bartow and the public and the schools. I see her rising to the public figure aspect of the role on a daily basis. I'm genuinely impressed.
2. Multiple people I respect at the school and administrator level, who have responsibility for executing Jackie's leadership direction, want her to continue. They've told me this unsolicited. She seems particularly popular among principals. This was not true, in any way, with Kathryn LeRoy. (I do not doubt there are exceptions. This is a big system.)
3. I think she has made a good hire in Dr. Michael Akes as the chief academic officer. I'll have more on this very soon. But I'm generally encouraged by his clarity, stakeholder management, and vision for finally reducing assessments/testing in a meaningful way. See this clip:
I feel comfortable that Byrd and Akes can provide a much better academic/operational leadership team than Kathryn LeRoy and Jacqueline Bowen did. Could we do better if we started over again with a new search? It's possible. But we could also do much worse. And does anybody want another year of instability and disruption at the Polk leadership level for an uncertain payoff? I don't.
Indeed, any new Polk leader in the era of the Florida model would face the same challenge that Byrd and Akes face. They've all been shaped by the terrible leadership incentives the Florida model produces. The Florida model -- endless testing, fraudulent school grades and VAM, segregation, etc. -- has demanded that an entire generation of leaders treat kids as spreadsheet cells and teachers as disposable, low-value slackers.
The Florida model does not reward collaboration with teachers. It rewards dominating them. It's why no one wants to teach in the Florida model; and why lots of people want to give orders in it from comfy offices far from children.
It is up to us -- the board and the public -- to change the incentives and mindset of our educational leadership class. In Polk County, these old incentives to dominate teachers have led us to impasse. That's a political question. And I am approaching it politically.
I see Tim Harris as the key advocate for the existing "corporate history and cultural understanding" of the Polk School Board, as we have known it. He basically announced it himself in his criticism of me.
If you want to change the leadership culture at the Polk School District, Tim Harris is the number one obstacle in my view. He's the shrewdest politician on the board -- and the most articulate spokesman for the status quo. What's more status quo than: "You might as well not even put it on your list."
I think he's also the key leader of the impasse. He leads a majority faction on the board that includes Hazel Sellers, Kay Fields, and Lori Cunningham. As a faction, they account for a combined 50 years on the board. They are proud of their board culture. Just listen to them talk about it.
A big part of that culture, for two decades, has been to jump when the state says jump, no matter what the impact to our students or teachers. The veteran board faction, above all, is docile and obedient toward Tallahassee. Likewise, they expect our teachers and staff to be docile and obedient toward them. It's what the Florida model demands.
Lynn Wilson, Sara Beth Reynolds, and I account for a combined two years-and-change on the board. And we are not a faction.
I think Lynn and I share a general sense of the need for cultural change in Polk and the consequences of the Florida model. We showed that with the vote over Wes Bridges' contract. We both think it's important for the people in charge to share accountability with the people on the ground. We think it's important to hold our leaders to good business practice. If Lynn and I were in charge, we would disagree ideologically in places. But we could do good business together. And I think we would broadly push in the same direction.
I'm not really it sure where Sara Beth stands. She hasn't said much yet. And she voted with the Tim Harris faction in preserving Bridges' unaccountable contract. She didn't say why.
Unfortunately, I am the only board member openly critical of the impasse.
Every piece of information I have suggests this impasse has been a School Board goal for months and months. That's why I say this impasse is not about money. It's about what teachers and staff can negotiate. It's about dominating our people rather than collaborating with them. It's about imposing additional obedience, gratuitously, at a time of teacher shortages. Someone will need to explain to me how it's helpful in any way.
I don't know if Jackie Byrd really wants the impasse. And I'm not going to ask her. Because it doesn't matter. Today's School Board wants impasse. It's my job to create a board that doesn't. Either through persuasion or elections. Or both.
I'll start Tuesday with a very simple, three-part proposal based on demonstrating good faith with our teachers and staff:
1) Let's agree to status quo on the non-salary structures of the contracts -- i.e., keep evaluation and health insurance as part of the contract for this year. If this is really just about money, that shouldn't be hard.
2) Dismiss our high-priced Tallahassee impasse lawyers.
3) Immediately restart collaborative negotiations over salary, with the understanding that we may end up closer to zero than what our employees want.
I don't expect my fellow board members to agree. But one never knows.
I do know that we already have two announced or potential 2018 School Board candidates who share my commitment to culture change. Lisa Bone Miller nearly beat Tim Harris four years ago. She's committed to running again and has my full support. Sarah Fortney, who is a longtime Polk teacher, recently said she intends to run for Hazel Sellers' seat. I think she'd make a fantastic board member. I'm excited to see how her campaign develops and how I can contribute.
The movement for generational change that grew up around my campaign isn't stopping with my campaign. That was always my number one goal.
Chaos is a ladder
Tim Harris isn't just unnecessarily defeatist. He's wrong. In the last 20 years in Florida, there has never been a worse time to say:You might as well just not put it on your list. Everything is in play.
That's because we are entering an unprecedented era of chaos in public education policy at the local, state, and federal level. The Florida/education reform model, which led to No-Child-Left-Behind and Race-to-the-Top and VAM and test insanity, is starting to break up.
It is breaking up because the people who actually work in it and experience it know how soul-crushing it is. Its only real legacy is excess meaningless testing, accelerating segregation, toxic stress, and a national teacher shortage. I believe the major parties share responsibility equally for this two decades of fail.
Do not kid yourself, Townsend/Trump voters: to the extent our new president cares at all about education, he plans to continue and expand the Jebama Common Core model and mindset. Betsy DeVos, his would-be education secretary, is just Jebama with less talent and knowledge of the details. Believe that. It is not an alternative fact. When have I ever lied to you?
I'm confident that the general state of revolt at the local level -- Polk is just one example across the country -- will provide political resistance to whatever awful thing DeVos tries to foist on us from her perch of federal power. These revolts are already getting the attention of our state legislators, really for the first time since Jeb cursed us with this model in 1999.
Indeed, on the day the Polk impasse was announced, our School Board had a fantastic meeting with Polk's state legislative delegation. I owned the meeting. My fellow board members seemed content to let me own it. Our board is actually quite united in our critique of the Florida model. We just disagree on whether to actually try to fight it. And we disagree on the Polk district's culpability in making it worse here.
With the board's apparent blessing, I got to say everything I ever wanted to say to state legislators -- to their faces. And they were surprisingly receptive, even constructive at times. Even after I literally waved the VAM equation in Kelli Stargell's face and told her: "This isn't objective; it's incomprehensible."
Low and behold, there are now multiple indications now that VAM is a legislative target this session. I expect to see a Republican-sponsored bill somewhere that eliminates it and begins to attack assessments. It may or may not pass. And I can't take personal credit for it. But I'm not hurting the cause of eliminating it, either. This isn't happening because the FSBA begged for scraps for 15th straight year. It's because of Opt-Out and revolts at the local level. It's because a new generation of parents and teachers and students are sick to death of the Florida model; and they're letting everyone know it.
I think Republicans fear a populist John Morgan mobilizing teachers in Florida the same way I did in Polk, even if they have no idea who I am, which they probably don't. I think Republicans fear John Morgan waving VAM and Betsy DeVos in Adam Putnam's face in 2018. If they don't, they should. Good things can come from that fear. My fantasy world sees Putnam and Morgan fighting each other to dismantle and rebuild the Florida model.
Anyway, the Polk impasse announcement came about three hours after that successful legislative meeting, like an emotional 2x4.
I learned about it through a press release attached to an email forwarded to board members that afternoon. That is extremely poor stakeholder management. I'm going to say this in person on Tuesday to Jackie and to new HR director Teddra Porteous. But I'll say it here, too: I do not want to find out about something so consequential through a Friday afternoon news dump press release. I am an elected board member. 140,000 people voted for me. Do not treat them with that level of disrespect again.
Moreover, I find the the juxtaposition of the impasse announcement and that legislative meeting maddening.
My fellow board members are stuck fighting 2006's battles, which are completely irrelevant to the generational challenges of the next four years. They seem either unable or unwilling to fight the battles that actually matter. We should be fighting with and for our teachers and staff -- not against them.
The veterans of the Tim Harris faction are all nice enough people. I have no personal beef with them. But their reverence for the "corporate history and cultural understanding" of the Polk School Board speaks volumes. I believe they lack the energy and imagination to see what's possible and necessary.
I did not run to fit into a "corporate history and cultural understanding" that I reject. I ran to create a new one, one that collaborates with our teachers and staff to build a humane and engaging future. I don't think there's any alternative if we want public education to survive. Compared to those stakes, whether or not I'm re-elected in four years is a vanishingly small consideration. So do not expect political caution from me. Lisa and Sarah are willing to take risks, too. I thank them for it.
If this sounds like a worthy mission to you, come join us on the ballot. If you just want to support our teachers, come see us at the Board meeting tomorrow at 5 p.m. Let's break the impasse together.