When I called for a hasty meet-up for Super Bowl Sunday, I’d hoped 10 or 15 people would come. We got at least 50. Together we formed Citizens for Better Educational Leadership. We’re a coalition of regular citizens and educators (we had plenty of both). We gave ourselves a simple, boring name because we have a simple — but difficult — goal.
We plan to gradually, sustainably, realistically improve the quality of educational leadership in Polk County. We hope this will improve the quality of life for the kids and teachers whose interactions define any education system.
Many, many more people sent regrets for not being able to make it. For those people — and for anyone else who reads this — here are a few talking points/basic priorities for our group.
1) Obviously, our top priority is the immediate dismissal/departure of Kathryn LeRoy. That should happen today. If it doesn’t happen today, it should happen tomorrow or Wednesday. You get the point. She has lost all legitimacy. I have heard not a single supportive word for her from any institution, member of the public, or educator. And I think I have probably talked to hundreds by now.
Literally no one I have ever written about has been so roundly loathed by her professional community. Period. Ever. She has no popular support. Her people don’t respect her. She does not learn. We’re not going to talk with her. There will be no mediations. There will be no sexual harassment training. Most sensible adults don’t need it; and it’s not at all clear to me that she would listen to it. There are only two choices: she will go; or she will stay through force of raw School Board power. And then we’ll have to deal with the School Board piece-by-painful-piece.
It wasn’t like LeRoy didn’t have chances and warnings. Back when she ignored the Jewett mock execution/active shooter drill for three days before throwing her principal under the bus for it, I wrote a long piece quoting a teacher. It was meant as a good faith heads up. LeRoy and I exchanged emails. At the time, I said this:
One always has to be careful when publishing and assessing these types of emails in dealing with an organization as large and diverse as the Polk School System. No superintendent can possibly please everyone; and sometimes gripes are just gripes. Moreover, I have never worked in any organization in which the rank and file praised communication from their leaders. Ever. It is the go-to complaint of every workforce.
However, I have to say that this message is consistent with the tenor and content of complaints I’ve heard from other teachers and educators about LeRoy’s administration since she took office. It boils down to a combination of heavy-handedness and organizational distance and confusion. I did not hear this specific type of complaint about her predecessors. Their complaints were different. I haven’t written anything about LeRoy until now because I didn’t have any particular incident or job performance issue through which I could assess it.
That was in November 2014. That’s about the same time, according to the investigative report, that the LeRivers relationship was at a particularly fraught point. One wonders if it affected her thinking. One wonders if she responded to Greg Rivers’ texts more quickly than the three days it took her to respond to national news reports about the children terrorized by an absurd drill at one of her schools.
Anyway, I wrote what I wrote back then as a good faith gesture of concern that might lead to some soul-seaching and improvement. That window has now closed. If Hunt Berryman was an attentive School Board member, he would have seen LeRoy’s public failure at Jewett as context for her organizational and private failure with Rivers. Instead, just three months after Jewett, Hunt Berryman did his ill-fated double secret mediation attempt. And stuck us with another year of her. Thanks, Hunt.
Finally, the best talking points I know for viscerally justifying LeRoy’s dismissal come from her own mouth.
I dare the School Board to simply play it for everyone at the meeting Tuesday morning. Observe the toxic mix of indulgent narcissism and cluelessness. Does it to fairly beautifully demonstrate “a combination of heavy-handedness and organizational distance and confusion.” Those seem to be the defining traits of her character, the ones she decided to put on display after a public report portrayed her precisely as a toxic mix of indulgent narcissism and cluelessness. She was too dense to even recognize it. Instead, she underlined it.
Ask her, Hunt, if she really thinks this:
My office was fully exonerated, found innocent of wrongdoing regarding some very distasteful allegations. But it has been a learning experience that I value as a professional. I have come to realize that what others describe as an outgoing personality can be misinterpreted by some. I regret that, and I have learned from it.
Ask her if she really thinks “her outgoing personality” explains this.
Ask her if she understands what “exonerated” means? I understand she comes from a STEM background. But a superintendent should have basic familiarity with language.
This is a “learning experience?” Really? Seriously. What grade would you give her for it?
Ask yourself, Hunt, if a top executive in your company displayed those presentation skills in these circumstances, would you keep that person as an executive? Be honest.
If it’s too distasteful, too hurtful to your pride, to raise these questions, Hunt, I’ll do it for you. Just ask.
That’s the background. Here’s the talking point: Kathryn LeRoy has proven an illegitimate superintendent in every way. She’s heeded no warnings. She’s taken no advice. Now she must go. The School Board must decide whether it wants to hold a figurehead in place to simply assert authority — or whether it wants to move forward constructively. Your move.
2) By all appearances, we can be rid of LeRoy by paying 20 weeks salary. I believe this is her contract. That comes to about $85,000. I guess we’ll have to confirm that with Wes Bridges. Of course, I’m concerned he’ll find some way to turn that $85,000 into $500,000. That seems to be what we pay him to do. But it still must be done. We’re spending almost that much, about $76,000, on some kind of fruitless branding. In truth, LeRivers and all that comes with it is our brand.
Talking point: Write the check, and let’s get on with rebranding.
3) We need to appoint as interim someone who is not part of the Jacksonville cabal that came with LeRoy. I am hearing horror story after horror story about one particular area superintendent. I don’t know if John Stewart would do the job again. And I’m not sure if anyone else would want him. But I thought he did a good job just simply being calm and reasonable and adult last time. If not Stewart, we’ll need a caretaker with those qualities to get us through the rest of the year.
Talking point: Make a clean break from the Jacksonville mistake. Start over. We are willing — no we insist — on helping.
We have many other thoughts and concerns and ideas. And we will be meeting regularly. If you want to get on our mailing list, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now I’m going to speak as Billy for a second and translate what I think we believe as a group about the future of education in this county.
I think we all share a priority of improving the educational experience for the median child. That will improve it for everyone. And we share a commitment to education that seeks to treat children like individual humans, not spreadsheet cells. I think we all are committed to improving quality of life for students and teachers alike.
To do that, we must begin to demand the same professional intensity from administrators and School Board members that we claim to demand from teachers and students. We’re not getting it today. That must change.
If Billy has anything at all to say about it, the days of no public consequences for treating School Board member as a cushy way to get good insurance are over. Ditto for administration jobs serving as highly paid escape from children. I’m not so naive as to think it’s possible to end both of those pathologies. But I can make them much less pleasant. Ask Dick Mullenax.
Every single one of us knows — teachers, parents, administrators — that far too many children will walk into schools today staffed by a patchwork of subs. Far too many children will walk into schools suffering from poor teacher morale. As an administrator and School Board member, if you have a teacher shortage and morale problem, your hair should be on fire every day to address it however you can.
It seems only Greg Rivers set Kathryn LeRoy’s hair on fire. If you can live with that on your conscience, Hunt, you’re a different person than I thought you were. You’re the leader here. You’re the one all the money and business muckety mucks lined up behind. Lead. If you do, I’ll support you. Leading involves acknowledging and addressing mistakes. Lead. If you won’t, we’ll have to do it for you. It’s not like Leadership Lakeland or Leadership Polk is going to do it.
For now, I think these are the key points. And we’ll see what happens from there.