The Ledger – by Kimberly C. More | May 19, 2020
BARTOW — Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd announced her retirement from the position in a letter to board members on Tuesday, effective on February 26, 2021.
“In 2016, when I gladly accepted the offer to become Superintendent, it was a time of turmoil for our district. There was low academic performance, a lack of civility and professionalism, and an almost irreparable level of distrust towards the district within the Polk County Community,” Byrd wrote in the May 19th letter. “Despite the challenges, I understood what mattered most – providing our students and community with a top-performing, reliable school district squarely focused on improving the quality of education for all students. As Superintendent, a parent, and a Polk County resident, it was my belief, and still is, that our students and community deserved no less.”
Byrd listed her major achievements during her tenure, including increasing the district’s state grade form a C to a B, increasing graduation rates to 88%, and sustaining two consecutive years with no F-rated schools, among many things.
Then she went on to blame “some Board Members” who “have either acted or attempted to act in ways that materially blur the respective roles and responsibilities of the School Board (policy and budget) and Superintendent (operations). Morever, the willful and increasing overreach has been unprecedented in my 32 years of experience in education, including 13 years in senior leadership positions.”
She went on to say that the “disharmony has become a major roadblock” to everyone’s continued success.
She said she is going to “transition to a more private life,” in which she can spend more time with her husband and family.
Byrd has weathered harsh criticism from School Board member Billy Townsend, but in recent months, he has praised her. In November, during her annual review, he said he understood she was caught between competing priorities — the state government’s and the local school board’s.
“In that context, I see evidence that the superintendent is moving to address points of emphasis expressed by the board — specifically (exceptional student education), behavior, humane aspects of education. This pleases me,” Townsend wrote in her annual review.
On Tuesday, Townsend expressed his regret that she is leaving.
“I appreciate the superintendent giving the district a long lead time for the change. I think she’s been a very strong public face for the district and was quite good at building public support,” Townsend said. “That will certainly be a quality I’ll be looking for in the new superintendent, if the public chooses to have me around in February.”
He also said he regretted that he and Byrd never built a consistent rapport.
“When we were aligned, very good things happened. And I think the record shows that the professionalism and high expectations of the new board led to some very good cultural changes, for which I often praised Mrs. Byrd,” Townsend said. “But I think she was never fully comfortable with the new board’s strong relationship to the public.”
Lisa Miller also has had some criticisms during her two years on the Board, mainly regarding special education issues, but she also supported Byrd’s efforts.
“I’m so disappointed to hear this news,” Miller said Tuesday afternoon. “Our schools are in the middle of a crisis and Mrs. Byrd was successful in leading the way through it.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Byrd showed her mettle by organizing continued free breakfasts and lunches, the distribution of laptops and iPads to students who needed them for distance learning, the use of school buses to provide Wi-Fi in rural areas, and a graduation program at Joker Marchant Stadium for district seniors.
“I am sad for our students,” said School Board member Sarah Fortney — who has often told other districts’ staff that “you can’t have her.” She continued in her statement Tuesday: “As I have stated before, good superintendents do not grow on trees, just like teachers and staff. I appreciate her educator heart and involvement in our community. I wish her nothing but good health and happiness in her retirement.”
In a separate letter to staff, Byrd did not mention her contentious relationship with some school board members
School Board member Kay Fields, Byrd’s biggest supporter, said it is a sad day for her.
“I’m very sad that we are in this place,” Fields said. “Miss Jacqui has done an amazing job as superintendent of schools. Her work speaks for itself. She’s done a great job. It’s just unfortunate for the students and the staff and employees of the district and for the community.”
Fields said she had not heard whether Byrd had a job offer from somewhere else.