Polk School Board District 3: Veteran Educators Rick Nolte and Incumbent Sarah Fortney

Incumbent Sarah Fortney is hoping for a second, four-year term in the District 3 seat on the Polk County School Board. Rick Nolte hopes to defeat her in the Aug. 23 primary so he can begin his first term.

The non-partisan race is pitting two longtime teachers, both retired, against each other. Fortney taught science for 33 years, most recently at Stambaugh Middle School. Nolte taught physical education and health for 36 years, mostly in Hillsborough Country. 

But that’s where the similarity stops.

Incumbent Sarah Fortney, left, and opponent Rick Nolte

Fortney, 61, is running on “experience, relationships and relevance,” and is endorsed by Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber of Commerce), Polk County Builders Association, Polk County Voters’ League, and the Democratic Party of Polk County.

She has accepted nearly $31,000 in campaign donations.  Her $1,000 donors include Polk Education Association teachers’ union President Stephanie Yocum, Ilse Buzzanca of Lakeland, Eric Stehle of Lakeland, Elizabeth Taylor of Colorado, Walter O’Rourke of Bartow, Local Union No. 915 PAC of Tampa, Ruth’s List of Tampa (a political action committee that supports Democratic women), and Schools Families Deserve Inclusive of Fort Lauderdale., a PAC that supports safe and healthy schools.

Fortney has spent more than $18,000 on campaign signs, media, and T-shirts, including about $500 in gas reimbursement expenditures as Fortney travels throughout Polk to campaign in this countywide race.

Rick Nolte, 66, owns a golf club manufacturing and repair shop and hosted for himself a June golf fundraiser at Cleveland Heights Country Club. His campaign slogan is: “Rick will work to unite students, teachers, parents and all faculty to insure everyone is heard and the students are receiving the best education to lead them into bright tomorrows.” He is endorsed by the Republican Party of Polk County.

Nolte has raised nearly $42,000, including $24,000 he has donated to his own campaign.  He has paid back $5,200 of that. His top contributors of $1,000 include Jason Sutton of Lakeland, Jane Ann Nolte-Wiener of Lakeland, Brant Martin of Lakeland, and Charles Cook of Frostproof.

Fortney called LkldNow within minutes of receiving a request for an interview and spoke in detail for more than half an hour.  Nolte did not respond to an email or text message. LkldNow culled his answers from a campaign questionnaire he submitted to County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative group based in Mulberry, along with a CCDF forum. 

Nolte’s daughter-in-law, Nicole Nolte, is listed as an administrator of a private CCDF Facebook page. She is married to Nolte’s son, Ren.

Part of Nolte’s platform is to expand vocational high schools and vocational programs, saying, “We need to prepare our students for the work place, not all of them will go to college for a 4 year degree.”

Because he did not respond to LkldNow’s interview request, we could not ask him if he’s aware that Polk County Public Schools has the second highest number of National Career Academy Coalition-accredited academies in the United States – at least one at nearly every high school in the county. They include training for everything from culinary arts to military, and medical and fire fields to future business owners. As of 2019, 13 PCPS Career Academies have been recognized as Model Career Academies and 10 have been recognized as Certified Career Academies.

He is also calling for an annual job review of every district employee. “I plan to push for a yearly performance review of all district level employees and their job descriptions in order to see where funds could be better utilized,” he wrote in a CCDF questionnaire.

But that is also something that is already occurring, PCPS spokesman Jason Geary confirmed.

SARAH FORTNEY

Why are you running for a school board seat?

I am the incumbent. I have earned that seat. I have fought for staff and students my entire adult life. I am where I’m supposed to be.

What is the process of obtaining raises for all employees in a fair and equitable way?

If I as a board member could control the processes, I would. But unfortunately that is dictated now from Tallahassee. So the influx of money, we were able to raise beginning teacher salaries. But an unintended consequence, if you will, was the compression of veteran teachers and staff — not just teachers or staff. And that compression is our next job, to find the money to reward dedicated double-digit teachers and compensate them for their expertise. Most people have no idea that over 40% … are 14-plus-year veterans. And we’ve got to find the money no matter what the compression issue is to keep them in the classroom because the magic happens in the classroom. And there’s nothing like an experienced teacher, an experienced bus driver, greeting our kids — first thing, last thing they see is our bus driver. Let’s reward them with what we can do. And we’re going to work on that. We’ve already made huge — I have never seen a contract signed before the start of school.

Can you explain how public schools are funded?

Yeah, if you’d like to sit down for an in-depth lesson. But quite frankly I think we were 64 out of 67 (counties in Florida). We might have moved up to 59 out of 67, very recently. And (Florida Education Finance Program) is a complicated beast. And unfortunately for us, we have no Public Education Capital Outlay. That’s really what drains our general fund. We have no money from the state for any kind of repair or maintenance anymore — all goes to charter (schools). And what a lot of people don’t realize is the state can say, ‘We’ve done this, that and the other,’ but the bottom line is the actual pot of money has not changed, right, and it’s simply restricted or unrestricted in a different way. It’s amazing to me, actually, how they can — it’s like a shell game.

We have FEFP. There are a host of categories that all get different weights (levels of funding) and that pot of money I just spoke about comes out as the Base Student Allocation, which from 2008 to present, we have lost millions of dollars on because of the required local effort being rolled back (by Tallahassee) and that is all money that we could have used for salaries.

When was the last time you were in a public school? Which one for what purpose? And what was that experience like?

Today. I was at Jesse Keen (Elementary) for their back to school blast. They had partnered with GEICO and beautiful bookbags sitting there. There were many families there to simply be a part of that little micro community. GEICO funded the whole thing. They had bikes to give away and they had helmets. Boys and Girls Club was there. True community effort. There was a snow cone (vendor). … people had to pay for the little snow cone things, but all that money went right back to Jesse Keen. They’ve done the same thing for Griffin. But that’s the only reason they have it. Like they don’t make any money on it – they staff it themselves. They go to schools and whatever proceeds they make at whatever event it goes right back to the school.

I’m in a school almost every day.

Did you attend public school?

In Brevard County. I went all the way through all public schools, graduated from Melbourne High School – Go Bulldogs.

(Fortney is married and has two stepchildren, grandchildren and great grandchildren.)

I can tell you this — I got thousands of kids that I didn’t birth, but come to my house on Christmas Eve. You’ll find them.

What do you think have been your top accomplishments as a School Board member? What have you gotten done?

That’s a big list. But the thing I’m most proud of, is the new staffing plan. The document that Fred Heid brought to the board as far as our strategic plan.

We have Hazel Health. But I think the most important thing is that I increased awareness on the workload that school counselors, social workers have had over the years and we have had an increase in those numbers that is really unprecedented to serve and support schools and students. I mean, we just did approve six truancy officers and a hearing officer. We’re focusing on attendance. It’s hard to learn if you’re not in school, right.

I have worked diligently with our HEARTH program for our homeless students.

I have built relationships with every single district staff person. I know how to get help when somebody reaches out – who to direct them to. I just did it today about concurrency.

There is obviously a huge amount of growth in Polk County and some folks don’t understand that you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we got a thousand new houses, you got to build a school.’ It goes through a process that again is dictated by the state. And in order to build a new school, the old school has to be at 80% capacity. Well, not all rooms in that school, even though they’re – you know, gyms count. A gym may be huge, that gym will hold 400 kids, but it’s not a classroom. But it counts on concurrency, right? So when we look at a school’s capacity, ‘Oh, you have room for 400 kids.’  No, we don’t. That’s the gym. That’s all state statute.

Since I’ve been elected. I had never voted a ‘yay’ for a staffing plan for Polk County Public Schools until (Superintendent) Fred Heid was hired. And I said publicly, ‘I’m gonna vote ‘yay’ on this because you told me you can fix it.  So the difference is elementary schools. It really doesn’t matter how many kids are in that school — they had a principal or an (assistant principal), and most of them are Title I, so they would have to buy out of their Title I money, staff. Why don’t we support that from the get go? Why don’t we support, if you got, I don’t know — making up a number – 1,300 kids, that you should have extra office help. Why don’t we have a guidance counselor assigned to that? You get one. But one does 1,300. Now you fast forward to a high school … When I first got elected, I started (visiting) elementary schools because I have, like, zero prior knowledge about how an elementary school is run. So basically, I started visiting those schools and I see maybe the principal, occasionally the AP. That was who greeted me. Go to a high school, a middle school even, I’m sitting in a room full of — I got four deans, I got three APs, they’re the same size as the elementary. Bartow High School, 1,300 kids, maybe. George Jenkins. 1,300. It doesn’t matter. The bottom line is the staffing plan did not align to the need.

What is your opinion of Mr. Heid’s handling of the 16 books that some say are pornographic or age inappropriate.

I support the superintendent and his decisions. I am thankful that he took that off the laps of every media center staff member that was about to be threatened and brought it to a district level. And his process was fair. His process was transparent. And his process worked.

Please define CRT

Not a clue. Well, I graduated college and never heard of it until it became a red herring issue. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve heard that it’s a law class. I don’t know. We don’t teach it.

Can you explain what the state mandates are to teach students about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement?

I believe that state standards should reflect, no matter what subject area, should reflect fact. And the fact is that there were lynchings in Ocoee. Fact is Tulsa got burned to the ground. The fact is Bloody Sunday happened marching across Selma, the bridge in Selma. Those are facts. It happened, some of which I observed. I would love, love to know, even as a science teacher, is there somebody else besides Albert Einstein? Could there have been a brown or black person that possibly worked in his lab? You know, these are things that kids need to know. I’m gonna go with Alexander Graham Bell, quite frankly, it was his assistant that discovered all that, right. You know, kids need to see true, factual history. And, you know, fact is, if you dig deep enough, it’s more than just, you know, Black History Month in February. Yeah, look at (Astronaut) Mae Jamison. She was a scientist first.

Why is it important for a brown or a black kid to see someone like themselves?

Well, quite frankly, I’m the prime example. I’m sitting here as a board member who, I’m obviously now the poster child for LGBTQ+ rights. You don’t think it’s not important for the kids all the way in Haines City or North Lakeland or here in Bartow, or Fort Meade to know they have somebody that has experienced every single thing they are going through? As far as a minority, I think all groups need to be represented. And that’s one thing I love about our board. Look at us. Just look at the diversity we bring to the board. I think that’s a positive. Our families are diverse. Our community is diverse. Our country is diverse. The global spectrum is diverse.

Can you name one Polk County public school teacher who is indoctrinating students and into what?

Hell, no.

Did you ever try to convince someone to be gay?

No, it is a terrible burden to bear growing up, where you’re ostracized. You know, if I had the power of indoctrination, I would have said, ‘I indoctrinate you to love science. I indoctrinate you to, I don’t know, keep a perfect notebook.’

Anything you want to add?

I’m obviously the incumbent I worked my butt off to make sure that we have a strong public education system here in Polk County. I live it 24/7, 365. I have no other job. This is my job — is to be the voice of staff and students. And I’m gonna leave you with my ‘Pre K through 12 public schools just do a better,’ which I’d been spewing from my little mouth for a long time. Because if you’re actually in the schools, you see it. You feel it.

I believe in this: Every student protected, every family respected. And if we just do that just do that on a granular level at every one of those 150 whatever schools, we’re going to be fine. Because strong public education is a topic we can all agree on.

RICK NOLTE

Most of the questions that Nolte responded to in a questionnaire and forum did not align to LkldNow’s questions. In those cases, the question the candidate responded to is included in italics.

Why are you running for a School Board seat?

Other than for the obvious personal reason of ensuring my five grandchildren get a proper education so they can become successful adults. I plan to push for a yearly performance review of all district-level employees and their job descriptions in order to see where funds could be better utilized. I would also like to see Polk County return to neighborhood schools like our surrounding counties have done to save on busing and gas expenses. My end goal is to find all the wasteful spending and use that money for vocational high schools and vocational programs. Our county and state are going though (sic) a time of tremendous growth. We need to prepare our students for the work place, not all of them will go to college for a 4 year degree.

CCDF questionnaire: What are the three main reasons you believe best qualify you for this position?

My educational teaching background of 36 years, being a local small business owner for 40+ years, my leadership abilities that have developed from working with students and alongside parents, follow (sic) teachers, and all school staff.

CCDF Forum: I’m running basically for my grandchildren, my children, your children, your grandchildren. We’ve got to make a correction to where we’re headed. We definitely need to get back to the basics, reading writing and arithmetic. I’d like to add respect and responsibility. As a teacher, I know you can’t teach unless you have discipline. So we all need to pull everybody together before the teachers come back and make sure we’re all on the same page.

What is the process of obtaining raises for all employees in a fair and equitable way?

Campaign literature: As a former educator, I understand that no one chooses a career in education in order to become rich, but we must provide financial incentives and raises to keep our best teachers in the classroom. Our district can’t run on just teachers alone, so we must also find the funding needed to obtain and retain staff. 

CCDF Forum: It saddens me to see so many good teachers leave after 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years. First-year teachers they’re starting out much better than I did. But then after four or five, six years, there’s not much of a difference. I’m seeing a lot of really, really good teachers leave the system. We’ve got to stop that. We’ve got many, many openings in in Polk County as we do across the state of Florida … When I was going to high school, I wanted to go to high school. I wanted to go to school. It was fun. It’s exciting. With my friends. Nowadays, it’s not the same. And I think by hiring good people who are qualified and excited about their jobs and working together, getting new people to come to the PTO, PTA meetings and your neighbors, their grandparents, great-grandparents, parents, everybody there will all work together to make this a much better system.

That’s definitely an Achilles heel, myself being a teacher for 36-plus years, I saw many times where the state would want to get the first-year teacher pay up so it’s competitive in all the states and everything. But then when you’re a five-year teacher when a person comes at $46,500 and you’ve been doing it for five years … it’s really, it’s gonna take lots of work because there’s lots of waste. When I taught here for nine years, I remember (an audit in) Bartow, they found out they had too many Indian chiefs and not enough Indians. And they did absolutely nothing. For years we had no pay raise and you promised us well, we’re gonna get to that step. And we’re gonna get you back pay. We didn’t get nothing, that’s why I went to Hillsborough County  …  I think there’s seriously gotta be some budget talking and when somebody retires, we need to move that into another system for another area. That’s how to make good teachers with 8, 12, 15 years experience.

CCDF Forum: Do you agree with allowing military personnel to teach while they earn their bachelor’s degree?

Because of this teacher shortage that we have now, I know we need more bodies in the classroom, but I think we definitely need to have some parameters set up as far as what their educational background is, what they would be able to teach. Because, I know right now, we have a lot of subs and we’ve got people teaching out of field …. It’s a lot to look into. We need to get everything spelled out and everybody’s on the same page. I know that I’m really concerned about the safety of our schools nowadays, and it would be nice to have some military people in there that know how to handle themselves in situations. So again, just basically need to look at the fine print and make sure we’re all on the same page and make sure the kids are getting a good education and a good teacher for that subject.

Can you explain how public schools are funded?

CCDF Forum: Question about adding another half-cent sales tax to fund teachers’ salaries.

Definitely not in the present circumstances, would I pass that or any tax increase on us. You gotta tighten the budget, we’ve got to cut out waste. I’ve seen lots of new teachers when they come in, the fact that those class management skills, maintaining law and order, as they say, principals give the best students to the brand new teacher and the teacher that’s been there awhile, he’s got really good classroom management skills, to get the rowdy ones.

So if you’re going to base that on, test scores, it’s not fair to the person … So there’s got to be a way without raising taxes. I would definitely look at cutting your budget and trimming out some things.

When was the last time you were in a public school, which one, for what purpose, and what was that experience like?

CCDF Questionnaire: What goals do you plan to accomplish in the first 100 days?

Visit every school in my area and do a walk around, getting a feel for what the biggest concerns are for teachers and staff. Follow through on the staffs (sic) concerns. Continue to meet with parents and grandparents in my district and see what their needs are and what changes they feel are important to better their children’s education. Outline the process of district performance reviews, work on the school zones and maps so students will no longer be forced to ride one way on buses 45 minutes to 2 (sic) an hour from their homes. I will find the money that is being wasted and put it to work for the students.

Did you attend public school? Did your children? Your grandchildren?

From CCDF forum: I came down to Florida from upstate New York in 1975 as a golf pro. Chased a little white ball around Florida Southern.

I taught one year in Orange County, nine years here in Imperial Polk County, and the last 26 and a half years in Hillsborough County, so I’ve got a good feel for three different counties and how they work things out. I’ve got two children. Ren and Jenna, and I’ve got five grandchildren and we are all public school trained. I love the public schools.

What do you think you will do better or differently than the person currently in office?

He did not answer this

Please name three things you’ve accomplished in the last four years for PCPS.

He did not answer this

What is your opinion of Mr. Heid’s handling of the 16 books some say are pornographic or age-inappropriate?

CCDF Questionnaire: What measure do you believe should be used to determine what library books are allowed in public school libraries and classrooms?

We need to make sure the library books are correct for that grade level. Committees need to be sure all contents are fit to be available for that age group. Parents and guardians need to become more involved in the School Advisory Councils (SAC).

When I first came down here to Polk County, we had an elected superintendent. I think that’s the best way to go. My thing is, I want to vote for the president of United States. I want to vote for the School Board members.  And I want to vote for the superintendent. If you look into the background of some things, I think some of your members have overlooked some of the things they’ve done in the past. So I definitely would go for an elected superintendent. And if the superintendent does a bad job, vote him out. If the School Board members do a bad job, vote them out. And I think it’s an important thing as Americans that we have that vote and I can’t believe that we threw a vote away like that.

Please define CRT. Is it an issue for PCPS? Why or Why not? Name a teacher who teaches it.

CCDF Questionaiire: Florida law bans teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT). What will you do to uphold this law?

I will uphold any and all Florida laws regardless of what they are.

Can you explain what the state mandates are to teach students about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Laws, and the Civil Rights movement?

Do you agree with the statement that “America is inherently racist”? Why or why not?

I do not agree with the statement. I feel like there is both good and bad in the world. Those that choose to see bad and only focus on the bad will see it. Those that choose to see good will see good and can work together to change the bad to good.

Can you name one Polk County Public Schools teacher who is indoctrinating students? And into what?

CCDF Questionnaire: Are you for or against mask and vaccine mandates? Please explain your position.

I am for parents choice and parents rights. Parents should always have the right to decide what is in the best interest of their own child.

CCDF Questionnaire: What responsibility do you feel parents/guardians have in the education of their children?

I feel like parents/grandparents/guardians hold much of the responsibility in regards to their childrens (sic) education. Learning does not only happen inside the classroom but outside as well and much of it happens inside the home. Parents should have every right to be involved and have a voice in their childs (sic) education.

CCDF Questionnaire: What responsibility do you feel public schools should have in the education of students?

“All school children should have a quality public school system to attend. It should offer many different tracks to graduation. We need to expand vocational programs as everyone needs to do what they enjoy, and excel at.”

CCDF Forum: How are we going to continue to make ourselves aware of these negative (global) influences as they change?

“We all have our different ideas on things. But I think we need to respect the American point of view … Like I said earlier, everybody seems to come across that southern border for a reason … I think we need to stress the exceptionalism of America. Teachers and our members showing respect for each other and living, walking the walk.”

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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