We can't afford four more years of the Berryman/LeRoy era

Should we continue the Hunt Berryman/Kathryn LeRoy era of Polk County public education? Or should we start a new era, based on new priorities, new action, and new personnel?

That's the core question at stake in this very important election. And it really has nothing to do with me or Hunt Berryman as people. We both have friends and family who love us. We have rich lives in a city we love. We're both going to be fine, no matter what happens on Aug. 30.

But the lives of 100,000 kids and the jobs of thousands of people benefit or suffer depending on the quality of leadership in our School District.

And now that Kathryn LeRoy is gone, Hunt Berryman embodies the passive, destructive status quo in Polk County education. You're not hearing any new ideas or energy from Mr. Berryman. His passive view of the School Board's role remains.

By contrast, I embody active change, backed by real ideas and plans for achieving them.

What the record says

With that in mind, if you understand nothing else about this race, understand these three facts about Mr. Berryman's status quo:

  • Hunt Berryman knew a year before the public that Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy was involved in a toxic and destructive relationship with one of her top aides. He set up a failed, half-hearted mediation; kept all the information from his board and the taxpaying public; and then indifferently washed his hands of the entire thing.

  • By contrast, Hunt Berryman did not know that virtually all LeRoy's relationships with communities, colleagues, teachers, schools, and employees were toxic and destructive. He made no effort to listen to the people that work for him -- or the people he serves. He was indifferent to the morale crisis that surrounded him.

  • Hunt Berryman believed that Kathryn LeRoy was doing a good job and making progress. He believed this despite the fact that five of our most vulnerable schools had a combined 18 principals during his term.

Each point represents an extraordinary failure of public leadership.

I talk about the first bullet point quite often. It's on all my mailers. It's a perfect window into the type of leadership you will continue to get from Mr. Berryman. The moment he made the decision to act in private on this vital public issue, he owned responsibility for it. Then he ran away from that responsibility as quickly as he could.

At one of our recent debates, I raised Mr. Berryman's failure to act on LeRoy and his failure to alert the public or his fellow board members. In response, he defended his "integrity." But I wasn't attacking his integrity. I have no cause to do that. I don't believe Mr. Berryman withheld vital information from his board and the public for any personal gain. I've never alleged that. I never will.

Rather, I believe he withheld this vital information because he has a very different approach to public leadership than I do. He washed his hands of this incredibly important issue because he didn't feel like dealing with it. He's indifferent to this job when it gets hard. His record demonstrates that clearly.

Mr. Berryman's "plan" for dealing with the cancer at the heart of our district office was to ignore it for a year. And he still thinks this was the right thing to do. It fits his understanding of how the School Board should behave and lead. He's never renounced it or called it a mistake. I urge you to ask him about it.

What active, effective leadership looks like

People tend to forget that Kathryn LeRoy very nearly stayed on as superintendent.

LeRoy publicly claimed that the School District's outsourced investigation vindicated her. She made an absurd video glorifying herself back in February. And the School Board was poised to let her remain with a slap on the wrist. Members talked openly about hoping she could survive both the scandal and the general incompetence laid bare in the District's report.

And then Wendy Bradshaw and I took over.

Together, we did the hard, unpaid work to organize the public, starting with an impromptu meeting at a Starbucks on Super Bowl Sunday. With the help of an engaged public, we fixed the LeRoy problem that Mr. Berryman had ignored. I assure you, today, neither Mr. Berryman nor anyone else wants Kathryn LeRoy back. That's how you change and build consensus. That's what effectiveness and commitment look like -- and what they can deliver.

We changed consensus on the School Board because we were right, and we were committed. People often ask me how I will build consensus on the Board. That's how. I'll work very hard to find the right answer to a problem. And then I'll be committed to bringing my fellow board members and the public along. I've done it before. As a board member, Mr. Berryman has not. It's why his campaign materials cite no accomplishments.

I'm not indifferent to jobs when they get hard. My record of engagement as a private citizen, with schools and the city of Lakeland, shows it clearly, too.

A "plan" means nothing without ideas and the will to act

Now Mr. Berryman says the School District has a plan to become an "A" district. It does not. Indeed, it doesn't even have a plan to staff multiple middle schools with full-time teachers this week.

Mr. Berryman did say at a recent debate that the new principals at the five schools I cited all have a mandate to "improve" this year or they'll be replaced. That, of course, is the precise wrong message to send. Turning 18 principals in four years into 23 principals in five years is another example of status quo thinking. It's a hallmark of the LeRoy/Berryman approach to education. Lurching indifference to chronic instability that harms children.

And yet, if you look at Mr. Berryman's materials and message, he seems to believe all the same general things I believe. He just has no ideas for how to accomplish any of them; no will to act; and no commitment to push forward. He's had four years. If he had acted on LeRoy, I wouldn't have needed to do it for him. If he had acted on reducing testing, I probably wouldn't be running. But he didn't act; so I am acting.

I want the responsibilities of this job much more than he wants them. And it's crucially important for everyone to consider who's more committed to meaningful action, no matter your specific interest in public education. Consider these questions:

  • If you're a teacher, who will listen to your concerns and fight to address them so you can serve your kids to the best of your ability?

  • If you're a parent, who is more likely to advocate for the environment at your child's school?

  • If you're a taxpayer, who will provide the oversight or accountability you deserve on how we spend money?

  • If you're an economic developer, who is going to generate or follow through on ideas for strengthening the system as a whole?

I find the answers to these questions quite obvious. And I think we are winning this race.

I know we are winning the battle of ideas -- about public education and public leadership. Mr. Berryman has moved toward me on the first. And he's tried to ignore the second. So we will win the people who are engaged and passionate about this race by a large margin.

If you want to help us expand that engagement and passion as far as we can, please consider contributing to change. This is crunch time. And every dollar helps. If you've already given, consider giving just a little bit more.

You can do that right here. Thanks so much to everyone spreading the word for change and action.