POLK COUNTY – According to a statement made by Polk County Public Schools staff on the district’s Facebook page, about 1,520 district teachers — roughly 20 percent of the 6,800 teachers who are employed by the district, in total — were absent from school on Monday, Jan. 13, to attend the “Take on Tallahassee” rally in support of public education.
There, educators from around the state gathered to advocate for increased teacher pay, increased spending per student and to decrease what many perceive as excessive student testing. The rally was intentionally held the day before the 2020 legislative session began, with educators hoping to send a message to state lawmakers.
Initially, the district had been planning for around 600 teachers to be absent for the rally, which has been planned for months. In statements released over the weekend ahead of the rally, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd indicated that district staff had been coordinating with the Polk Education Association — the local teachers union — since November.
During the days leading up to the rally, however, there was a surge in the anticipated number of teachers who would be absent.
“Last week, the number of teachers submitting time off more than doubled,” Byrd said.
Later in the evening on the day of the rally, after the school day had transpired without any significant incidents reported, PCPS staff made a Facebook statement that elaborated on how the district navigated the substantial number of absences.
“The plan included using a combination of qualified substitutes and certified school-based employees (such as school counselors and media specialists) to cover classrooms, and assigning district staff members to schools to provide additional support,” the statement read. “Approximately 30 deputies from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office also assisted in classrooms. We worked closely with our law enforcement partners to provide additional security on our campuses.”
Message suggested threat
Ahead of the rally, Byrd reached out to Florida Department of Education staff last week to make sure her plan to address the absences was safe.
Byrd forwarded the FDOE response she received to every Polk County Schools employee on Friday night, Jan. 10, at around 9:30 p.m. The FDOE response resulted in dozens of media stories being published and broadcast over the weekend and thousands of comments on social media.
FDOE General Counsel Matthew H. Mears responded to Byrd's inquiry about her plan by writing that the 1,600 Polk County teachers were effectively going on strike by taking personal days en masse to attend the rally, suggesting that each teacher who attended could be fired and collectively fined.
“A public employee violating the strike provision may be terminated from their public position, subject to reemployment upon particular significant limitations,” Mears wrote. “As the Department of Education, we have highest obligation to ensure that Polk County educators are advised of the risks associated with participating in a coordinated effort to not report for duty.”
The forwarded message was not well received. Hundreds of social media comments written by people identifying themselves as Polk County teachers said they felt their jobs were threatened by the FDOE email.
Early Saturday afternoon, on Jan. 11, Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend emailed Byrd demanding to know whether she would fire the 1,600 teachers who planned to attend.
Later on Saturday, the district released a statement that included a response to the concerns.
“The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff,” Byrd said.
Townsend and others said that the statement’s wording was not the same as a promise not to fire any Polk County teachers who attended the rally. On Sunday during a press conference, Byrd clarified that she would never threaten any of her teachers as a group.
Townsend and Polk County School Board members Sarah Fortney and Lisa Miller attended the rally. School board member Sara Beth Reynolds spent the day teaching students at Denison Middle School in Winter Haven.
The FDOE letter was addressed specifically to Polk County teachers and, based on media reports, other Florida school district superintendents did not have to account for as many absences as PCPS staff did.
Salary negotiations ongoing
According to Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum, who represents teachers and other school staff as union president, Polk County teachers may have had a bit of extra motivation to attend the rally given recent developments in the salary negotiations between the PEA and PCPS.
Back in November, a group of local lobbyists paid for Byrd's expenses to attend the National Summit on Education Reform at a beachfront motel in San Diego, an event sponsored by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Polk County Public Schools Senior Director of Public Relations and Strategic Partnerships Rachel Pleasant verified this.
Generally speaking, former Gov. Jeb Bush was a proponent of grades for schools based on student scores on state mandated exams, using “VAM” scores to grade individual teachers, having traditional public schools share education dollars with public charter schools and using state tax dollars to fund private school choice vouchers.
Many of these policies have not been popular with public school teachers.
Last fiscal year, the Florida state legislature approved a funding increase that resulted iin around $10 million that could have been applied toward higher salary for teachers in Polk County. On Dec. 17, union members of the Polk Education Association voted 887-887 on whether to ratify a tentative agreement to freeze teacher salary this fiscal year and place all of that money toward rising health insurance costs, so that Polk County teachers would not have to pay additional money for that benefit. The split vote meant the PEA did not accept the terms.
Yocum said it is very possible that some teachers and school staff union members were influenced in voting against the tentative agreement that was in place due to Byrd's trip to San Diego in November.
During a press conference Sunday, Byrd said she supports her teachers rallying for additional school funding and that she only wished the school district had more time to prepare for such a large volume of absences.
Salary negotiations between PEA and Polk County Public Schools are still ongoing.