Polk County Public Schools officials, along with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, refuted allegations contained in a blog post and podcast that raised questions about school district hiring practices.

PCPS issued a lengthy statement Thursday to address allegations raised by David Gornoski, who describes himself as “an entrepreneur, speaker and writer.”

The podcast includes a lengthy conversation with James Dunn, who is campaign consultant for at least two of the three School Board candidates endorsed by County Citizens Defending Freedom. The three are Terry Clark, Rick Nolte and Jill Sessions.

According to a recent Ledger article, Dunn is a convicted felon in Texas. Officials there say Dunn received $300,000 from the Texas Department of Education to provide vocational rehabilitation to people with mental and physical disabilities, but did not provide the services. He was indicted in 2007 and in 2009, Dunn was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison.

The school district and the sheriff strongly denied both allegations in the following statement:

“On Friday (July 8), a blog post and podcast were published regarding the Polk County School Board’s hiring of Frederick Heid as superintendent.

These online stories have been circulating on social media, and news media have asked PCPS for comment (see The Ledger’s story here). In the interest of transparency, we are sharing the following response with our community.

To provide some context, the post was created by a blogger, David Gornoski, who subsequently featured James Dunn on the podcast. Dunn is a campaign consultant for two local school board candidates; he has been featured by the Lakeland Ledger previously regarding his having been convicted on federal fraud charges.

Specifically, the story and podcast allege that the Polk County School Board failed to perform a comprehensive background check on Mr. Heid before hiring him as superintendent.

Secondly, the story and podcast allege that Lindsay Sharp was hired improperly by Mr. Heid and that she fails to meet eligibility requirements for the role of PCPS’ Senior Director of Digital Learning and Innovation.

The school district refutes each of these allegations as outlined below. We are releasing this statement as a matter of principle because, at its core, this appears to be a most distasteful and egregious attempt to influence upcoming school board elections by sharing intentionally misleading information.

• Allegation: The Polk County School Board failed to conduct a proper background check on Mr. Heid as a candidate prior to hiring him as superintendent.

PCPS refutes this baseless allegation in its entirety. The school board went above and beyond the norm when hiring Mr. Heid. The board enlisted the services of the Florida School Boards Association and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to assist with background checks on all PCPS superintendent candidate finalists. These background checks included searches for bankruptcies, liens/judgments, UCC filings, phone/email information, driver’s License information, address, criminal records, sexual offenses, Florida accidents, and a professional license review. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office also sent a team of investigators to conduct a “boots on the ground” detailed background check on each candidate. Neither report revealed anything of concern. In addition, Mr. Heid was never a named party in the litigation – referenced in the post and podcast – that was filed in Illinois, where he previously served as superintendent.

Sheriff Grady Judd has also provided a statement to the chair of the school board, Sara Beth Wyatt, supporting Mr. Heid:

Dear Chair Wyatt:

It has come to my attention that a criticism has been made against the Polk School Board’s background process related to the hiring of Superintendent Fred Heid.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office did a complete and thorough background investigation for the Polk County School Board related to Mr. Heid, and I can assure you that he was fully vetted by our background investigation. His name would not have been presented to the school board if there was any valid question related to his qualifications, integrity, or his care and concern for the safety, educational needs, and wellbeing of children under his care.

Our background investigation was well aware of legal filings involving District 300 schools in Kane County, Illinois. There was absolutely no indication of any connection of Mr. Heid to any poor decision making related to the hiring or negligent retention of any employee. Mr. Heid was never a named party in the filing we reviewed. There was not then, and there is not now, any iota of evidence implicating him in any unlawful, unprofessional, or unethical behavior.

I have worked with Superintendent Heid since his hiring and I find him to be a man of integrity with an extraordinarily strong work ethic, and a professional committed to the safety and security of our children, including my own grandchildren. I trust him.

Any allegation that he is anything less than a highly principled and capable leader has been shown to be without merit by our background investigation.

Sincerely, Grady Judd, Sheriff

• Allegation: Mrs. Sharp was improperly hired by Mr. Heid and does not meet eligibility requirements for the role of Senior Director of Digital Learning and Innovation.

PCPS reviewed this allegation and found that Mr. Heid had no involvement in the hiring of Mrs. Sharp. Mr. Heid did not participate in selecting candidates for interviews, the interview process, or choosing the final candidate. Mr. Heid was also not listed as a reference, nor was he asked to provide a reference for Mrs. Sharp. Finally, Mrs. Sharp met or exceeded all the qualifications for the position. Additionally, a full background check was performed in accordance with state statute/school code. The background check revealed nothing that would preclude her as a candidate.

This blog post and podcast appear to be politically motived and completely lacking in any kind of journalistic integrity. Neither Mr. Heid nor PCPS was ever contacted regarding these allegations or asked for a response. This appears to be a blatant, misleading attempt to influence the upcoming elections.

There are many issues with this post and podcast including:

• No attempt was made to verify the specifics of a lawsuit discussed in the post, or ascertain its current status. No phone calls or emails were sent to Community Unit School District 300 to verify the facts surrounding this case. Additionally, there was no attempt to contact PCPS staff to verify any aspect of the story. The content of the story fails to meet any professional or ethical standards for journalism.

• James Dunn’s participation in the podcast leads us to believe that he is seeking to mislead and sway voters before the upcoming school board elections. We want to emphasize that Dunn is a paid campaign consultant and should not be viewed as an impartial observer in this matter.

PCPS and Mr. Heid have always been open to responding to media and community requests for information and comment. Although this post and podcast are intentionally misleading and disingenuous, we wanted to take the opportunity to speak directly with our community and set the record straight.

Thank you.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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1 Comment

  1. Quite a lengthy article for it to not actually address the specific allegations.
    A few weeks ago I read the original article by David Gornoski- with the allegations, and they are very specific and appear legitimate. Certainly I can’t vouch for a final conclusion but I find this article and (especially) the PCSB response to be dancing around the actual concerns that were voiced.
    And for this LKLD article to focus on Dunn’s past stinks like a shift from the actual story.
    This whole situation is quite concerning.

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