Bartow Horror Story: the catastrophic failure of Polk’s testing and student data system

Political advertisement paid for and approved by Billy Townsend, School Board District 1 (Please see the full explanation of this disclaimer at the end of this essay.)

Nothing illustrates the comprehensive rot at the Polk School district administrative and leadership level (talking about the Bartow office, not principals at schools) as powerfully as the failure of the Local Instructional Information System (LIIS) project in the last two years.

Many chronic classroom quality of life issues — including Polk’s tortured testing environment — relate directly to it. No Polk County teacher or student has ever failed as comprehensively and indifferently as the highly paid adults in Bartow failed at this vital project.

And yet, you have probably never heard anything about it. That’s going to change, starting now.

Led to the slaughter

What follows are minutes from the February 25, 2014 work session of the Polk County School Board. Current board members Hunt Berryman, Tim Harris, Lori Cunningham, Kay Fields, and Dick Mullenax, and Hazel Sellers attended. To read these minutes now is like watching a horror movie at the moment when the unwitting victim decides to inspect that noise in the garage.

Note please the parts I’ve highlighted in bold:

LIIS (Local Instructional Improvement System) is a requirement of Florida Statutes and is a commitment by districts that received Race To The Top (RTTT) grant funds. It is a one-stop shop for all the data that supports teaching and learning and has to be in place by June 30, 2014. It also ties into Page 6 of 12 our strategic plan.

Allen Burgtorf with Beanstalk Innovations and the program’s Lead Developer, David Lamintino provided information on the LIIS program. It is designed to provide resources to students, parents, teachers, and administrators great resources as well as the ability to access data effectively and efficiently.

There is a critical need to make the data relevant, displayed in a user friendly content, and personalize to each users’ experience. The teacher’s student profiles includes a face of the student with their data, student alerts and progress monitoring, instructional considerations, and transcript data to measure individual growth and progress.

Administrators will have teacher profiles for progress monitoring, classroom observations, professional development need, lesson plans, etc. Beanstalk Innovations will be partnering with Polk County to build a parent portal access.

Mrs. Cunningham inquired about the cost and annual fee. Superintendent LeRoy responded it will be funded through the RTTT grant and is approximately $700,000 for the next two years ($3.62 per student). The current assessment system sunsets this year and those dollars can sustain the program in future years. Mr. Burgtorf committed to providing a cost for the next 5-7 years to the Board.

Mr. Harris commented that Florida hasn’t seen a standard it didn’t love. How will this program adopt and adapt to the changes of DOE? Mr. Burgtorf responded that the program has real-time updates and changes based on the needs of the state and district. Mr. Harris asked what other districts in Florida use the program. Mr. Burgtorf reported that no other district uses the whole system as Polk County is considering. Mrs. LeRoy stated that Dade and Broward use several componets as well as DeKalb County GA. Nevada, South Dakota, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico are several that use the whole program.

The presentation/discussion above took about an hour, according to the minutes. A couple weeks later, the same School Board approved this purchase on the consent agenda of its regular March meeting. I say that again. On the consent agenda. The consent agenda.

You probably don’t know this because it’s barely been mentioned publicly, but that LIIS system implementation failed utterly and completely. By most accounts, it never really got started. This failure has cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars directly. Indirectly, it has crippled the testing process in Polk County and cost us all incalculably in wasted time and effort and frustration. I feel certain we have lost many valuable teachers because of it.

“Mrs. LeRoy rejected the recommendation”

This unbelievable failure of business management surfaced openly to the public only through Greg Rivers’ sexual harassment complaint against Kathryn LeRoy a few months ago. And it was overshadowed by mix tapes and sexual language and all that other sordid stuff we talked about. It should not have been.

Several screen shots below lay out Rivers’ full account of the LIIS failure. Nothing, to my knowledge, contradicts his narrative. But I’ll be happy to publish anything School Board Attorney Wes Bridges or School Board members would like to provide. And no, Greg Rivers had his own problems is not an answer.

Here are a couple of key excerpts. They are painful to read for someone who cares about this county.

In mid-2013, three potential vendors made presentations to the District. After the presentations, a recommendation of a selected vendor was made to Mrs. LeRoy, which was Schoolology. All vendors offered an already developed and functioning LIIS system that would be tailored to the needs of Polk County Schools.

Mrs. LeRoy rejected the recommendation and stated that she knew a vendor that she wanted to have make a presentation.

LeRoy had an existing relationship of some kind with a representative of that vendor named Allen Burgtorf. The company, Beanstalk Innovation, had never done a system like an LIIS for an education client. Yet, LeRoy directed the District to hire Beanstalk and handled negotiations personally and solely, according to Rivers’ complaint.

In addition, “there was confusion between Mrs. LeRoy and the selected vendor over who was providing the assessment item bank [ed. note: an item bank provides the test questions for the testing platform] that would be required for a complete LIIS system.”

So the district had to buy a test bank from another provider called the Northwest Evaluation Association. Here’s what happened:

A payment of $340,000 was made on September 24, 2014. Please note that this item bank was used in a test of an assessment system, but the assessment system was not workable and therefore not used.

Let me repeat that. We spent $340K of your money and mine just on test questions we never used for a system that didn’t work.

Read it all for yourself

Rivers’ full account is only three-and-a-half pages in total below. You can click the screen shots to make them larger and easier to read. And honestly, as taxpayers, parents, and citizens, you owe it to yourselves and your community to read the whole thing so you get the full effect.

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Clearly, former Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy bears the brunt of the blame for this. And she is quickly emerging in my head as the worst single worst public official I have ever encountered in all my years of covering government. THE. SINGLE. WORST.

But understand, even after the LIIS collapse and everything else, key members of our School Board thought she was doing a good job, including Hunt Berryman. Indeed, only Lynn Wilson seemed actively skeptical of her leadership.

No remorse

To my knowledge, not one School Board member or top administrator has publicly acknowledged, explained, or apologized for this failed management of your money and trust. Not one has apologized to teachers and students and parents publicly for the unnecessary hardship and stress the LIIS failure has caused.

But this failure does not stop with the elected officials and big money professionals in Bartow. The rest of us must own it, too. The city of Lakeland’s awful natural gas power contract was news for years. I would argue LIIS is an even more consequential and complete disaster. And yet somehow, it’s virtually a secret because we’ve let it be.

The Ledger hasn’t explained or reported this in any meaningful way. I didn’t report it. I wasn’t paying attention. Economic development professionals and local governments are so far removed from the day-to-day activities of this giant, vital “corporation” at the heart of our county that they would never know about it unless somebody like me tells them. And to my knowledge, the Polk teachers union has never publicly addressed the LIIS system and its effects on its members.

In short, this is on all of us. ALL. OF. US. If we don’t fix the culture of indifferent failure with other people’s money that thrived under the current board and the leadership of Kathryn LeRoy, nothing will change in this educational system. No reform will take. No act of goodwill or creativity will matter. No teacher pay raise will mean anything but spare pocket change. No one has been doing the work required to make our school officials care about what we think and want. That must change.

Whether I win in August or not, I urge all of you, including supporters of my opponents, to commit to doing much, much better as citizens. I promise I will help you — whether I win or lose. We can start by asking any school board member or top administrator to apologize to the public for the LIIS system failure. Do it relentlessly. At every forum and public appearance. Make them answer; because they made you pay and suffer. Without remorse. We have to impose some remorse.

This isn’t just a crucial business imperative. It is a moral duty.

If you think I’m willing to do the work to change this culture, and you’d like to help, please consider contributing to our campaign.

You can do that online here.

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Note on Lakeland Local:

In my reading of Chapter 106 of Florida statutes, what I write on Lakeland Local does not constitute an “electioneering communication” or advertisement. Here is one relevant passage:

The term “electioneering communication” does not include:

1. A communication disseminated through a means of communication other than a television station, radio station, cable television system, satellite system, newspaper, magazine, direct mail, telephone, or statement or depiction by an organization, in existence before the time during which a candidate named or depicted qualifies for that election, made in that organization’s newsletter, which newsletter is distributed only to members of that organization.

On the other hand, exclusions from the rules of disclaimers on advertisements and political messages only apply if the message is:

(d) Placed at no cost on an Internet website for which there is no cost to post content for public users.

(e) Placed or distributed on an unpaid profile or account which is available to the public without charge or on a social networking Internet website, as long as the source of the message or advertisement is patently clear from the content or format of the message or advertisement. A candidate or political committee may prominently display a statement indicating that the website or account is an official website or account of the candidate or political committee and is approved by the candidate or political committee. A website or account may not be marked as official without prior approval by the candidate or political committee.

In truth, Lakeland Local is a peculiar animal. And I don’t think Florida Statutes have truly contemplated it. Here is the basic explanation.

Chuck Welch pays $134/year to host a number of sites, including his personal sites and LakelandLocal.com and now BillyTownsend.com. I have listed that cost as an in-kind contribution. Neither Chuck nor I have ever made a dime from LakelandLocal. It is as nonprofit as a website can be. And I pay to publish nothing beyond Chuck’s hosting.

With all that in mind, when I write a piece related to the campaign, I will mark it with the disclaimer at the top of this essay. I do that out of an abundance of caution only. And I appreciate you walking through it with me.

9 thoughts on “Bartow Horror Story: the catastrophic failure of Polk’s testing and student data system

  1. Wow. School board spending money we didn’t have on untested products with inside favoritism. Ridiculous.

  2. I wondered when this would re-surface. Here it is. And it was you, Billy, who again made us realize that these board members NEED TO GO. I challenge Sara Drum of the Ledger to be more investigative in her reporting. I challenge every single adult in Polk County to be more aware of how his/her tax dollars are being squandered by this inept school board. I am in total disgust over this and I will be at the school board meetings to tell them just how I feel. Shame on them. Shame on all of us for not paying attention. it is time people…IT.IS.TIME. to wake up and smell the coffee…it is burning and realize that our greatest commodity is our children and in this day and age we cannot afford to waste a single dollar when it comes to educating these students. You know I am with you Billy, and some of the others that are running for the seats up for reelection on the school board. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. And I won’t stand for it anymore.

  3. Maybe it’s time to bring back an elected superintendent. Obviviously the board can’t be trusted with the choice.

  4. I am not surprised but the “hush hush” attitude in this community and within the school system needs to STOP! There is so much going on that is SO WRONG and if you stand up, they try to shut you down. FEDERAL LAWS, STATUES and more are broken and you get no help. Principals talk down to you and try to instill fear, the county Administration tries to stop your movement, and games are played every day. People need to WAKE.UP.AND.PAY.ATTENTION. This is a classic example of the “hush hush.” I am sure there was a violation of law for not seeking the contracts legally here too.

  5. You certainly do your homework Mr. Townsend. Your observations are “spot-on”. I hope you get on the board in August; your knowledge, insight and standards for accountability would greatly benefit the teachers and students of Polk County.

  6. More that one board member has said they are an “advisory” board.” Where in the world did they get that idea? It is an excuse for choosing a superintendent and then just becoming cheerleaders and a rubber stamp. They certainly aren’t asking any questions, paying attention to details or really listening to the building administrators, teachers and parents. You are right they are still defending LeRoy and her crew. One said, “But, they are so smart.” No, not really, not smart enough to design and administer a good testing program or smart enough to take into account what our communities need. Their idea of “scripting” the classroom was just plain dumb as proven by this year’s scores!

  7. South Florida seems to have a short memory here. I’m reminded of a “Lobbyist” named Neil Sterling.
    http://www.btuonline.com/pdfs/Press%20PDFs/News%2009/sun%20sentinel%20oct%2015%20members%20under%20scrutiny.pdf

    Mr. Sterling was also Lobbyist for a publishing company, Houghton Mifflin at the direction of Mr. Allen Burgtorf. The connection? They both now work with SRG Technology. http://www.srgtech.com/company/team/ which was the developer of the LIIS system.

    These guys have been running this racket for years in Broward, Miami and Palm Beach. I’m glad someone is finally recognizing this pattern of corruption and hopefully will find someone (anyone?) to hold accountable.

  8. Try being a teacher doing the reviews. The site we log into is rediculus. You have to fill out some much info for each question it takes forever. They refuse to listen. We are told to make the questions harder. It’s stupid.

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