Just because it happened on the cusp of a holiday week, do not think that I let The Ledger’s account of McKeel/StargelGate pass unnoted. Believe me, I am far from done rubbing every awful thing McKeelers have done or said in the service of “achievement” and “leadership” and other people’s “integrity” in their collective faces.
Some time back — circa 2010 or so — I set out to demolish McKeel’s public reputation. I sought to do this by simply stating clearly what McKeel actually does to real people. I believe that you are what you do, not what you say or what you market. So what do we think? How am I doing?
Look, I know that McKeel will always have its pipeline of Lakeland Christian wannabes. It will always be a magnet for (mostly) white political conservatives too cheap or unsuccessful financially to pay for the rigorous exclusion of people not pretty enough on paper — or in real life for that matter. I do find it ironic that these beacons of achievement and self-reliance need my money to pay for their self-image. But I also know I can’t do much about it other than taunt them. And I will continue to do that until I see a hint of a whisper of institutional humility emerge from that snakepit. I have nothing but time; and you have given me endless material, McKeelers. To paraphrase the great, departed, family-loving Harold Maready himself: I don’t taunt you; you taunt yourselves.*
But what I’m really after is raising a giant red flag for parents and kids who might otherwise have ended up at McKeel by accident of marketing. Oh, this looks like a good school. They’re always on the Ledger’s front page. Look, their cheerleaders are in the Macy’s parade. And Seth McKeel and Judge John Stargel are on the board. Gee. Once you’re in a school, which is by definition a community (or a cult), it becomes a disruptive act to leave. I am trying to save a few innocent people from the misery of that experience. Life has enough misery without attending a school that tells you how fat and stupid you are all the time and then kicks you out.
I also don’t want to let our Polk School Board members slink away from this debacle unscathed.
Remember Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old model Bartow High student who got arrested and temporarily expelled for making a plastic bottle go pop? Remember what Polk School District spokeswoman Leah Lauderdale said in response? I do:
“Unfortunately, what she did falls into our code of conduct. It’s grounds for immediate expulsion. We urge our parents to convey to their kids that there are consequences to their actions.”
Still waiting on any kind of Polk School District statement about the credible allegations of adult criminal behavior in a report that McKeel itself (or at least its board chair) commissioned. Remember, Maready quit for the sake of family he loves — or something. He wasn’t fired or disciplined. The McKeel board wasn’t going to impose any consequences. That’s for the Kiera Wilmots (and her parents) of the world, not the Mareadys and McKeelies. Indeed, I doubt anyone will ever ask Seth McKeel or sitting Judge John Stargel why they did nothing about what’s in that report.
But I have some hope for making School Board members uncomfortable.
If Ledger reporters ask them (looking at you Greg — and nice job on the story last week, Mary, but there’s more to do), I feel certain the School Board members or new superintendent will crawl into the fetal position and say something like this: We don’t have any authority over McKeel. There’s nothing we can do.
But one thing does not imply the other. I also have no authority over McKeel. And yet, I would say I have done something more than nothing as a citizen over the past few years.
The Polk School Distict could and should unanimously vote to censure the entire McKeel “community” for the behavior of its leaders and the enforcement of its “no complaint” culture. And make no mistake, the parents and teachers are culpable. You are what you tolerate.
The School Board should unanimously call for a state’s attorney investigation–not just into the criminal allegations in the report, but also into the financial practices that have made McKeel’s accounting a shambles. Hard earned taxpayer money went to fund that annual $70K beach retreat that almost got assistant principal Dan Backes fired for suggesting it should end because of its cost.
The School Board should state, quite publicly, a position on the type of educational leadership on display in the McKeel report, especially in light of the exceedingly amusing anti-bullying page on the McKeel Academy of Technology web site.
Bullying must include the following three items,
Any behavior that is unwanted, offensive, threatening, insulting, causes discomfort or humiliation, or interferes with the individual’s school performance which results in the victim feeling stressed, injured, or threatened, AND
The behaviors is repeated. It has happened several or more times AND
There is an imbalance of power between the bully and the person making this report.
Please note that we will not know who you are and won’t be able to contact you unless you say so below.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Maready solicited and dealt with honest feedback from his staff:
Mr. Maready also has a 360 review process, but he received feedback from just a few direct reports. It is not believed that he receives honest feedback. In 2011, during the beach conference, Mr. Maready assembled the senior leadership from the schools (P and APs) for a meeting because he had received some negative feedback on a 360 feedback. Mr Maready was not happy with the feedback, and said that he could not trust the people that worked for him. He seemed to want to know who had said things about him.
And then take a look at what current MAT principal Linda Acocelli told The Ledger about the allegations of coerced campaign contributions.
McKeel Academy Principal Linda Acocelli said she didn’t feel like she was ordered to donate to Stargel’s campaign.
“I really would have supported Kelli anyway,” she said. “I did not really feel pressured because I supported Kelli. Had I not been a supporter, I might have felt differently.”
Let me translate that for you: Because other people were bullied, not me, I didn’t have to worry about it. That’s your principal, McKeelers. Awesome.
Acocelli’s assistant principal, Dan Backes, is the man who filed the formal grievance against Maready for a myriad of bad behavior. Backes demonstrated his commitment to Kelli Stargel’s political causes by coughing up $25. Along with Maready and two other McKeel officials, Backes declined to comment on the allegations for The Ledger.
I think the single most important thing a leader can do is protect his or her people from illegal or immoral orders and behaviors. Do you think Backes or anyone else could rely on Acocelli to protect them from the McKeel culture?
You, School Board, should make it clear that your principals are expected to protect their people — administrators, teachers, students, parents — from bullying. Especially potentially illegal bullying. You should set a moral tone for the cultures at your schools by holding up McKeel’s no complaint culture as an example of what not to do. You should do it because you have a moral obligation as the overseers of public education in all its forms in this county. I don’t get to vote on how McKeel spends my money. I have to rely on you. Just because the state — and many supporters of your campaigns — have absolved you of legal responsibility doesn’t mean you’re absolved of moral responsibility. I pay you as surely as I pay Linda Acocelli and paid Harold Maready. SO DO YOUR JOBS.
At they very least, you should instruct Leah Lauderdale to say something laughable about consequences.
*From page 5 of the investigative report: “Mr. Maready’s approach with the MAT administrators is to say that he will not fire them, but their performance will decide it. He stated, you will fire yourself.”