Big money, names behind challenger William Allen, while supporters of incumbent Billy Townsend defend his reputation as an accountability holder.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Billy Townsend ran against Ed Shoemaker for the school board seat in 2016. In fact, Townsend ran against Hunt Berryman and Ed Shoemaker in the primary. Townsend and Berryman garnered enough votes to face each other in the general election, which Townsend won. In addition, public schools use scholarships funded by corporate donations that would have otherwise gone to pay state taxes. This story has been corrected.
LAKELAND — As the crow flies, Polk County School Board incumbent Billy Townsend and his opponent William Allen live about a mile from each other near Lake Hollingsworth. But Townsend’s governing style, compared to what Allen would like to do, are a world apart.
Townsend is tenacious, picking apart people he believes aren’t doing their jobs — or not doing their jobs the way he would. He has written a blog about local politics and education since 2008 and received backing for reelection from many public school teachers in Polk County.
Allen, a tenured associate professor of interactive and game design and documentary filmmaking at Florida Southern College, would like to take a gentler approach to the school board. And he has the backing of some of Polk County’s most influential residents, including local and state lawmakers.
Townsend, 48, grew up in Palatka, a North Florida town in which his family’s roots date to the 1860s. He has written a book about some local families’ push back against the racist elements of the Ku Klux Klan between 1915 and 1930. Called “Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida,” it also details his great-grandfather’s front-porch showdown against a racist posse.
“As a family, we still own the house in Palatka where he faced down a mob with a shotgun,” said Townsend, whose great-grandfather was an attorney and also an elected official who was instrumental in Palatka outlawing public hangings.
But Townsend said it was his time in Putnam County’s integrated school system that helped to shape him.
“Everything I think I know about the world and other people and relationships, across race and across class, come from growing up in truly integrated schools,” Townsend said. “I was truly lucky. I got a lot out of it as a young person.”
In 2016, he made a last-minute decision to run for the school board. Part of what drove him into the non-partisan race against Hunt Berryman and Ed Shoemaker, he said, was the treatment of teachers and the way state testing equated students to a once-a-year score.
“The other thing that drives my loyalty is the dishonor with which teachers have been treated the last 25 years,” said the graduate of Amherst College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts from which he earned a degree in English. “A great, loving teacher may be the most important piece of capital some children ever have. I hate cruelty, I hate injustice, and I hate lying. And I see it so often with people trying to do the best they can in this system that beats them down.”
During his first term on the school board, Townsend has been highly critical of local state lawmakers, particularly Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who is chairwoman of the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. Townsend said Stargel and her Tallahassee counterparts don’t fund education appropriately and are working to damage public education by shifting funding to for-profit charter schools.
Townsend has solid support from a base of Polk County teachers with many $50 checks written to his campaign. He’s also received donations from Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum, former Polk County Judge Bob Doyel and former State Rep. Paula Dockery.
Gregory Fancelli, a grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins, contributed to Townsend’s campaign under multiple company names and pseudonyms.
Townsend, who leads a national writing team of about half a dozen people for PricewaterhouseCoopers, is married to Julie Townsend, executive director of Lakeland Downtown Development Association. They live in the Lake Morton Historic District and have three children. Their youngest son attends Lakeland High School.
Allen, 46, Polk County born and raised, grew up in a Bartow working-class neighborhood. He described himself as a student who struggled in school.
“I would definitely say I was an average student. I was in the Bartow High Intercept Program (for) at-risk students,” Allen said, noting he also attended Stevens Elementary School, Union Academy and Bartow Junior High before heading to the big brick building on South Broadway Avenue.
“For me, coming from a background of very little, I have memories of handing in a reduced lunch ticket at Stevens,” he said. “Single mom raising us, you don’t really think about those things, but looking back you realize where you came from.”
After his 1992 graduation from Bartow High, Allen went to work as a sheet metal mechanic. Thanks to a mentor, Allen had a religious conversion and eventually moved away from a rough lifestyle to one that included church. And he headed off to Pensacola Christian College, where he earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in communication. He also earned a doctor of philosophy and a Ph.D. in Digital Media from the University of Central Florida.
Allen and his wife, Jill, are raising their three children in a large home off Hollingsworth Road that’s owned by Florida Southern College. All of their kids attend McKeel Academy charter school.
Allen said he remembers the students like him, who might have thrived in a different learning environment. He said that’s why he supports equal opportunities for all students to attend magnet programs, workforce academies, charter schools or even private schools through scholarships funded by corporate donations that would have otherwise gone to pay state taxes.
“Education for me is a pillar of hope,” Allen says in his campaign literature. “That’s what I represent and will bring my tangible educational experiences with a passion. This progression or next step involves taking this gratitude of my Polk experiences and giving back to my community.”
He is hoping to help the school district create partnerships with local businesses in order to supply students with mentors and possibly create apprenticeships with those businesses. He serves as a mentor to some of his own students, who he says have been routinely at his home for meetings and informal discussions.
At the beginning of July, Allen’s campaign webpage shared a list of hosts for a fundraiser at Idlewood Country Club in Bartow. There were 80 people on that list, and it reads like a Who’s Who of Polk County, including four former and current Lakeland mayors: Bill Mutz, Gow Fields, Howard Wiggs and Frank O’Reilly.
Some of the same business leaders supporting Allen’s campaign are also involved with Lakeland First, a group that favors an agenda of “improving education, improving the economy and improving public safety.” Lakeland First does not publish a membership list.
Also on Allen’s supporters’ list: the late Ben Hill Griffin III, Publix scions Barney and Carol Barnett, along with their son, Wesley, and his wife, Ashley Bell Barnett, and her mother, current state Rep. Melony Bell; current state Sens. Ben Albritton and Stargel; current state Reps. Mike LaRosa and Josie Tomkow; former state representatives Seth McKeel and Baxter Troutman; current city commissioners Leo Longworth (Bartow) and Phillip Walker (Lakeland); and the family of Lakeland business leader Jack Harrell Jr.
“The upcoming election on August 18th is very important — the next decade of Polk's public education is at stake,” Wesley Barnett said. “We can regress into a backwoods, dysfunctional bullying match or we can be part of leading Florida into the future … Billy does not tolerate opinions that are not in alignment with his own.
“That's why my family is supporting William Allen for Polk County School Board District 1. He is open-minded and collaborative. He's future-thinking. He's a Polk County success story.”
The race issue
Race became a factor concerning Townsend earlier this month when a political action group, Citizens for Polk Education, created a Facebook ad that quoted former Lakeland NAACP director Don Brown: “First of all, I think you’re a racist. You’re poisonous in what you do and say.”
The ad was targeted at Townsend. Will Harrell, the son of Jack Harrell Jr., is chairman of the PAC that supports Allen’s campaign.
The quote was from a June 2018 school board meeting when Brown and other local Black leaders took Townsend to task after several provocative incidents, including Townsend’s campaign to oust Tenoroc High School Principal Jason Looney, who is Black, following several accusations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in the past decade. The school district could find no wrongdoing on the part of Looney or his wife.
The ad also followed the sudden retirement announcement by Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. In her May letter to the school board, Byrd, who is Black, cited a contentious relationship with some board members, noting “the willful and increasing overreach has been unprecedented in my 32 years of experience in education, including 13 years in senior leadership positions.”
Barnett also pointed to Byrd’s retirement as a reason not to vote for Townsend.
“We are driving away any superintendent candidates with any ounce of self-respect and professionalism,” Barnett said. “Billy wants the superintendent to do his bidding, he won't be happy with letting someone do their job. Billy's problem is not that he has bad ideas. It's that he is not amenable to other's perspectives.”
Townsend, however, never called for Byrd’s resignation or removal during his first term. In fact, he expressed regret that she was leaving the school district.
“I think she’s been a very strong public face for the district and was quite good at building public support,” Townsend said. “When we were aligned, very good things happened.”
The race issue reached a crescendo at the school board’s July 14 meeting when Gow Fields, the first elected Black mayor of Lakeland and the husband of current board member Kay Fields, compared Townsend to the white Minneapolis police officer who killed a Black man, George Floyd.
“To give you a visual, if George Floyd were the superintendent, if Officer (Derek) Chauvin was board member Townsend, if the other officer that had the two knees in the back of Mr. Floyd were board member (Lisa) Miller, that means the other board members are standing by being complicit,” Fields said.
“We cannot deliver our best effort to our people of this county, to the employees of this county, but more importantly to the students, when the behavior of this board is forcing us to spend taxpayer money to search for another superintendent.”
When asked afterward if he thought Townsend was racist, Fields told The Ledger: “I’d have to be in his head to answer that. And I’m not in his head.”
'Polk County deserves way better'
Two days after the racial comparison in a public forum, Fancelli — who like Townsend has campaigned against both Gow and Kay Fields — said the tactic has backfired.
“Gow Fields just handed Billy Townsend his second term on the school board,” Fancelli said. “I sure hope we can move beyond this. Polk County deserves way better, I am looking forward to the next incredible superintendent.”
On issues involving the candidates directly:
Townsend points to his leadership on the district’s reduction of its state-mandated reserve fund — a type of savings account — from 5% to 4% of its annual budget as a victory. It saved teachers from layoffs and helped cover rising insurance costs, he said.
However, Allen said that dip into savings might harm the district moving forward in this pandemic era, which has seen a substantial drop in tax revenue.
“In all that, I practice fiscal responsibility,” Allen said. “I’ve got a record of not overspending on any budget that I’ve managed.”
Townsend, at this point, is edging Allen in campaign contributions, although not by much. Townsend has raised nearly $30,000, while Allen has more than $24,000.
The election for the school board's District 1 race is Aug. 18.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.