Olive branches: Help us help you, School Board; help us help each other

Back in 2012, following the terrible murder of two Polk State College students, PSC President Eileen Holden said this during a campus vigil.

I can tell you that these three young men were successful students, that they were popular, that they were highly engaged in student life here at Polk State…

But I can also tell you that how successful, popular or involved they were does not define the magnitude of our grief today.

Our entire College community is focused on the success — and the intrinsic value — of every single one of our students. There is not one person that has ever been associated with Polk State that we would be willing to discount or discard.

When we say, as we often do, “We are Polk” — that is what we are saying. We are a collection of individuals who share communities and dreams and challenges and opportunities.

It floored me at the time. I was writing a lot about Polk’s K-12 public schools then — especially some of our self-consciously exclusionary models. Holden’s words stood out starkly. I noted them then — and remember them now.

Today, I can’t help but think about the simple institutional good faith built into that sentiment. By virtually all accounts I’ve heard, from many, many people I respect, Eileen Holden maintains ferocious commitment to that institutional good faith in how she runs Polk State. She demands it from the people who work for her. I think she is clearly recognized as the finest institutional leader in Polk County.

None of this is meant to launch a “Draft Eileen Holden” movement. (Although, now that I mention it…)

It is meant to ask these three questions of everyone in this county:

1) Why do we celebrate Eileen Holden’s vision and execution at the adult higher education level?

2) Why, at the K-12 level, do we reduce our children to spreadsheet cells? Why do we insist on defining them and walling them off from one another by racial, social, and cultural affinity — or by narrow, incomprehensible, muddled metrics of “achievement?”

3) Why isn’t this the mission statement — the brand — of the Polk County School District?

Our entire College School District community is focused on the success — and the intrinsic value — of every single one of our students. There is not one person that has ever been associated with the Polk School District that we would be willing to discount or discard. When we say, as we often do, “We are Polk” — that is what we are saying. We are a collection of individuals who share communities and dreams and challenges and opportunities.

I confess that I thought of Holden’s words immediately upon hearing Kathryn LeRoy’s at a different moment of crisis. LeRoy opened the statement she read aloud at Tuesday morning’s work session in typical LeRoy fashion:

It is an honor to be the Superintendent of the Polk County School District. It took me nearly thirty years to get here.

She thought of her own career. She made this moment about her, not Polk County or its children or people. Indeed, I see no evidence — and certainly no one has made any effort to show me any — that LeRoy has ever thought about anything but her career. Whatever its legal findings, the LeRivers report documented astonishingly childish self-absorption. LeRoy made no effort to even acknowledge that Tuesday morning. Both the self-absorption and the denial are emblematic in every way of everything I understand about how LeRoy has led since we made the mistake of hiring her.

In praise of Lynn Wilson

I’ve been very hard on the Polk School Board generally — and Hunt Berryman and Dick Mullenax specifically. But on Tuesday, Mullenax did the right thing, as did Lori Cunningham. Berryman stopped just short for calling for the end of this problem. But I think he will vote that way on Friday. I think he was concerned about legal and procedural issues. But that’s just my perception.

In any event, I see no utility or point in pounding the School Board members any more in advance of the meeting — although Tim Harris’ mushy, content-free effort to duck the subject doesn’t speak well of him.

Assuming Berryman delivers the fourth vote on Friday, I’m focused entirely on the future. And what I’d like to offer the School Board is a simple choice: an endless, ugly slog over a superintendent with zero community or School District support or a suddenly galvanized county, pulsing with energy and new attention to how we’re going to improve quality of life for students and teachers and Polk County. Help us turn this anger into a new era of good faith educational engagement.

I have talked with more people from the economic development, educator, and just plain parent communities about our education future in the last few days than I have in years.

Maybe this is the moment that we finally begin to talk to each other honestly and publicly. We have a particularly factional school district. We have traditional schools that range from reasonably integrated to poor to segregated. We have enrollment-curated charter schools and charter systems and magnets — which have different models and policies of inclusion or exclusion even among themselves. We have academies and big high schools and who knows-what-else.

In considering education as a systemic county concept, the business community has different interests from the teachers union which has different interests from individual teachers who have different interests from parents who have different interests from governments which have different issues from taxpayers and on and on and on. None of these interests are illegitimate. We should acknowledge that. None of them are easily summed up by abstractions like choice, or achievement, or vision, or strategic plans.

And they don’t need to be hostile or indifferent to each other — as they often are now. All of them should be asking each day, what are we doing to reach, serve, and prepare kids for life?

I’m offering my good faith to anyone who wants to sincerely pursue answers to that question.
After watching Tuesday’s meeting, I certainly think that includes Lynn Wilson. I found his speech and leadership honorable and brave and pained. He was the first to call for the meeting on LeRoy’s future; and he gave the most comprehensively correct reasoning for doing so.

He pointed out, accurately, that the issue at hand isn’t whether LeRoy sexually harassed Rivers — or vice versa. It’s her ongoing difficulty in leading people. And Wilson revealed that he had personally warned LeRoy to adjust her style. Her effort to comply was “tepid,” he said. Wilson added, quite sensibly, that he suspects LeRoy thinks she leads her people just fine.

Thus, you can add Wilson’s name to mine as people who warned LeRoy about her path. I wanted her to succeed, too. That’s why I wrote this in late 2014 after her failure with the Jewett shooter drill:

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.

You can add Wilson’s name and mine to Hunt Berryman’s and Wendy Bradshaw’s. Berryman and Wilson did it in private, but that’s water under the bridge now.

Wendy did it emphatically and publicly. The Ledger wrote a massive front page story about Wendy’s viral resignation letter. The reporter quoted LeRoy herself extensively within it.

“My first reaction was: I understand her frustration and I generally agree,” said Polk Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy. “The problem is that the accountability system is smothering everybody.”

LeRoy said good teachers are leaving because of their frustrations and said she would ask teachers to bear with them as they try to push forward.

“We can’t afford to lose any more good educators,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to our public education system if we can’t recruit or retain good teachers.”

A few paragraphs later, Wendy told The Ledger flatly that the Polk district had made national and state level problems worse.

[Bradshaw] said she thinks the Polk County School District has amplified the restrictions imposed by the state but sees the problems occurring nationwide.

LeRoy was warned and warned and warned. She didn’t listen. I don’t really think she can.


I’m going to end by asking a moment of personal indulgence. It’s tied to another line from LeRoy’s statement.

I would ask that if you choose to judge me, you judge me not on rumor, not on allegations or claims which which were flatly denied, or witness testimony which is unreliable, not on media reports, blogs or attacks aimed at readership or ratings…

Presumably, “blog” refers to me.

I don’t even know how to check for my readership numbers. Ask Chuck Welch who still runs the technical guts of Lakeland Local as an ongoing civic donation — or curse — for Lakeland and Polk County. I don’t know who reads what I write. I’ve never been paid a dime to pop off in the eight years I’ve been doing this as a civic hobby. I took four hours of vacation time from my actual job so I could silently attend the meeting on Tuesday.

To come again on Friday, I’m going to have to miss coaching my 12-year-old son’s final YMCA basketball game. I love coaching. I love high-fiving a kid when he or she does something right – and explaining with honesty when they do something wrong. Kids desperately want adult approval in my experience. Coaching is an easy way to give it to them — on honest and productive terms. At any level of skill, any kid can do something the right way during a practice or a game. I love trying to figure out how to put a kid into a situation that allows him or her to taste that success and get praise for it. It’s my version of everybody gets a trophy.

In short, I’ve been a citizen of this community for 17 years. I try to contribute the best I can. For the last few days, I’ve thought the best way to contribute was to use vicious humor and organizing energy to try to destroy a woman’s career. I thought it was the best way to help many, many more kids and adults.Think about that. That’s what we’ve come to. And I think I’ve been proven right.

I’m writing this tonight while watching Donald Trump blather on. And honestly, I’m a little tired and a little sad. It’s been an exciting few days of mobilization. But it takes energy to write. It takes energy to be a very public asshole. At least it does for me. That energy tends to crash on me at times. I’ve been an asshole for a few days because I felt like I needed to be to help move my community in a direction I think it needs and deserves. But I like to think it’s not my natural state. You’ll have to judge. But there are very few people whose opinion of me matters much. For the most part, I live with them.

The point of this isn’t to say, “Oh everybody look at Billy.” It’s to point out LeRoy’s human incuriosity and bad faith. She reduced my life in Polk County to a cynical pursuit of readership. An attack line in a moment of self-defense. That’s fine; what else was she going to do, I guess? But I am the least cynical person any of you know, I promise. If I’m an effective critic at all, that’s why.

Think about it, I was tearing her reputation limb-from-limb and sharing it with as many people as I could. I was publicly gunning for the thing she most cherishes — her career. And LeRoy still couldn’t work up any basic human curiosity about my motivations — or anyone else’s who showed up in force Super Bowl Sunday to organize.

Think how little human curiosity she must have about any individual kid at Wahneta Elementary.

I’m dreading this meeting on Friday. It’s going to be horrible — whether they fire her or keep her. Person after person after person climbing all over another human being’s character. In front of her.

Speaking only for myself, I’m rooting for some kind of resignation deal before then. I’m fine with writing her the check and sparing her what’s coming Friday, if anyone with power cares.

But rest assured, if I have to, rather than hangout with my son and his friends and show them how to set picks, I’ll show up and talk about what’s wrong with Kathryn LeRoy. I think that’s the best way to serve my son and his teammates now. So can’t we get this over with quickly? And can’t we start talking honestly about what it’s going to take for us to say this — and mean it?

Our entire community is focused on the success — and the intrinsic value — of every single one of our students. There is not one person that has ever been associated with Polk County that we would be willing to discount or discard.

17 thoughts on “Olive branches: Help us help you, School Board; help us help each other

  1. Billy, I have been silently reading your posts for the last few days. You have a fan in me. As a teacher, this entire situation is disgusting and needs to be rectified immediately. Thank you for your time and effort.

  2. Re: “Ask Chuck” about readership numbers. I have. He doesn’t know, doesn’t really care. He’s never had advertisers to impress. LakelandLocal for him has been more about reaching influential readers than mass readers.

  3. You have worded this perfectly…. I will be missing my grandson’s baseball game on Friday on Friday, because I, too, feel that showing up at a meeting to facilitate change is in his better interest. Will I speak? I’m sure that I will not because after years of being a PCSB employee, I am beaten down to someone with very little confidence in how I express myself…. but my heart will be there….. and my body will be another to show support of those like Lynn Wilson and Lori Cunningham, who had the integrity to speak the truth and explain why Ms. LeRoy simply can not stay. I am a new reader of your posts, but I will be faithful. Thank you again for what you are attempting to accomplish.

  4. Billy, you nailed it by questioning, “… what are we doing to reach, serve, and prepare kids for life?” That is certainly in line with the mission of Hillsborough County Public Schools: “Preparing Students for Life”. Perhaps Polk can adopt a similar mission statement since the research for “branding” has been done and paid. The taxpayers of Polk County, myself included, will not have to incur another $76,000 debt for misappropriated funds; therefore, our tax dollars can be applied to professional development for teachers and support systems that truly support, serve, and prepare students for life.

  5. Billy, thank you for putting into writing what so many educators, parents, and community members are feeling. It is beyond time for educational reform in Polk County, and hopefully the outcome of this administrative mess will lead us in the right direction.

  6. Harris said he wants people not to crucify someone without knowing their side of the story. He urged the community not to forget academic achievements that have been made.
    “What” academic achievement Tim? You can’t show consistent data for any more than one year for the past 10 consecutive years. Every year, the state has changed the testing metrics and methods. If you’re using the 30%, but not less than one grade letter scale and no lower than a 65, then I can see where you would believe there has been measurable academic achievement . The board and the Superintendent are so busy creating smoke and mirrors that you seem to forget some of us actually paid attention in statistics and political science class. Here’s a statistic for you: According to the Polk County Supervisor of Elections, as of Jan. 2, 2015 there are 360,259 registered voters in the county. In 2014, Nonpartisan Tim Harris, Incumbent, garnered 27,644 votes to beat Nonpartisan Lisa Bone Miller who garnered 23,740 votes. So, if Harris only beat Miller by 3,904 votes, will 3,905 voters be done with the smoke and mirrors in 2018? You’re a good man Tim and I have always been a big supporter, but you cannot convince me that LeRoy and Rivers are the leaders to follow out of this quagmire we call a school day. This is a decision our students cannot afford for you to get wrong.

  7. “There has to be some consequences for these kind of behaviors but my question now — I believe Kathryn would do everything in her power to turn this around, but I don’t know if the community is willing to let her go forward,” Sellers said. “I was hoping we could survive this, but now, it depends.” Two things just jump right out here: “I believe”, and “I was hoping we could survive this”. What do your constituents want? Who are you hoping will survive this; the board’s reputation or the students of Polk County? Voters please end this in 2018. Vote for Wendy Bradshaw for Polk County School Board District 3.

    • Agreed, but it also demonstrates our power when we assert it intelligently and forcefully. We’re making her do something she doesn’t want to do. Power.

  8. Enough is Enough. The mere fear that has been instilled into staff by this individual at all levels shows the magnitude of what she has done to this county. You cannot effectively manage through fear, intimidation, and living above the “rule of law” when it comes to professionalism. You cannot expect one thing from your employees and you, yourself not follow through. The most interesting thing that I find in Billy’s comments and the reports is this…ME ME ME. In the Superintendent’s response, the very first thing mentioned is her achievements and accomplishments. I have news for you-they were happy to get rid of her in Jacksonville and we will be happy to get rid of her in Polk County. Anything less is unacceptable and School Board members will be remembered for their votes at the polls. This is a public embarrassment to Polk County Schools and makes us the laughing stock!! Doesn’t the School Board see this???

  9. Don’t forget everyone, Trump Rally is this Friday 7PM at USF Sundome! We can finally put an end to Common Core and together we can make America Great Again!

  10. Billy, you have once more nailed it! Thankfully we had 3 on the School Board who grew a spine and stood up and said enough is enough. The others on the Board need to join them. I cannot believe Kay Fields seriously thinks a 30 day suspension is the solution for what LeReoy has done to our PCSB. And for the record, I think not only should LeRoy go, but so should Rivers. Paying off the contract for Leroy for only $89,000 in my opinion is a deal, and worth every penny! No point in dragging the School Board through trying to terminate her contract with cause. To the other members of the School Board, you need to wake up and listen to the people who elected you. If you don’t, you will pay the price down the road when elections take place. Thank you Mullenax, Wilson and Cunningham, we stand behind you. Thank you Billy for your writing and efforts to keep Lakeland residents informed.

  11. I do hope the Board understands that PCSB employees who are on a nonunion annual contract probably will be too scared to show up to speak or even sit in the audience on Friday. Thank you Mr. Mullenax, Mr. Wilson, and Mrs. Cunningham.

    • With respect, sometimes one has to overcome one’s fear. Speaking only for myself, I want bravery in my teachers and educators. It’s a key to being successful, I think. It’s not fair that it’s this way; but ultimately, teaching kids is more than just a job and a livelihood.

  12. Looking in depth at the investigation, (although according to her she did not break any law or policy) has anybody questioned her about the $600K contract for LETSTALK (a micromanaging tool , to see how quickly people respond to concerns) or the $800K (2014) spent on LIIS that has been paid upfront ,yet not in service. That is $1.4 million dollars that the School Bd allowed her to spend with little to no oversight. I could care less about her extracurricular activities, but when it comes to MY taxpayer dollars being flushed down the toilet I have a big problem with that. Significant Seven do your job, or come election time you will be FIRED!

    • The sad fact is the Significant Seven rubber stamped those projects. If one of those seven would have stepped up to the plate like a real board member back when these problems first arose, we wouldn’t be posting on here today. Instead, they let it languish as if it didn’t exist and now it has “exploded.” Then we have “Fields” with her 30 day suspension idea because it is all hearsay. Do your job as a Board and stop “rubber stamping” everything, start asking questions, get rid of LeRivers, hold the next one accountable, and open up a means for the public/staff to provide input.

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