Polk Superintendent Byrd confirms she’s retiring in February

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The Ledger | by Kimberly C. Moore | August 31, 2020

LAKELAND — Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd is, in fact, retiring in February. 

“I submitted my letter and yes, I will be retiring,” Byrd said Monday in an emailed response to a question from The Ledger.   

Rumors have been persistent since Byrd’s announcement in May that her retirement was a political maneuver to oust Billy Townsend from his School Board seat. She later named Townsend as one of several board members she said had driven her off. Trying to convince her to stay was a main tenant in William Allen’s successful election campaign against Townsend. 

“I have always tried to take the superintendent at her word about this,” Townsend said Monday. “It’s helpful to have clarity for everybody moving ahead because there won’t be this moving question hanging over potential applicants.” 

Allen had personally asked Byrd to stay last week.

William Allen, Polk County School Board member-elect.
William Allen, Polk County School Board member-elect. ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER

“Obviously, my first choice is to have her continue to lead our students toward excellence,” Allen said Monday. “In spite of the noted dysfunctional environment, Superintendent Byrd understood our complex cultural dynamic in Polk County so well and moved us toward a culture of excellence. It’s important that we honor her achievements and allow her to finish strong.” 

Several School Board meetings have already been held to organize the search to find Byrd’s replacement and Florida School Boards Association has been hired for $30,000 to help in that endeavor. The association is being paid in thirds, with the final payment to be made next year from funds obtained by the state’s settlement with BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

When Byrd announced her retirement in late May, she said some board members “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). Moreover, 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. 

When asked at a July School Board meeting by former Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields if one of those board members was Townsend, Byrd nodded yes. Fields, whose wife Kay serves on the board, went on to say Townsend was like the white police officer who put a knee into George Floyd’s neck, killing him.  

“There’s nothing to comment on,” Gow Fields said Monday, denying that he wanted Byrd to stay. “I’ve said they snuffed the life out of her career. I asked the board to change their behavior going forward.” 

Kay Fields said Monday that she had no doubt Byrd was retiring.

Polk County School Board member Kay Fields. [FILE PHOTO/THE LEDGER]
Polk County School Board Member Kay Fields. [File Photo/The Ledger] PIERRE DUCHARME/THE LEDGER

“I was hoping that she could be convinced otherwise,” Kay Fields said. “I think that the response given by the majority of the board last (week) when we were trying to not rush the process of the superintendent search and we could get Ms. Byrd to stay ‘til the end of the school year. It was obvious the majority of the board doesn’t want that … so I’m not surprised that she has put it in writing.” 

Lisa Miller, a second School Board member Gow Fields named and Byrd confirmed was part of her reason for leaving, was unavailable for comment Tuesday. 

Sarah Fortney, who has been laudatory with her praise for Byrd in the past, wished her well Monday. 

“I thank Ms. Byrd for her service to Polk County,” Fortney said. “I wish her and her family all the best.” 

School Board Chairwoman Lori Cunningham said she’s sad that Byrd wouldn’t be staying after all.

Polk County School Board Chairwoman Lori Cunningham. ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER
Polk County School Board Chairwoman Lorie Cunningham. ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER

“I wish she would stay because I think the continuity of the work that’s been laid is so important in moving forward with our student achievement goals,” said Cunningham, who wants to see the district reach an A grade during her next four years in office. “We all have a different season of life and I respect her decision to retire to spend time with her husband and her family. Certainly, I wish her the best, but it is a sad day for Polk County Public Schools.” 

Byrd has said she is going to “transition to a more private life,” in which she can spend more time with her husband and family. Her adult son and daughter live in Jacksonville. 

Byrd’s last day is currently scheduled for the end of February. 

Photo: Addressing community rumors of possible reversing a May retirement announcement, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd told The Ledger in an email Monday: “I submitted my letter, and yes, I will be retiring.” FILE PHOTO/THE LEDGER 2020 ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER