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Polk County School Board members took a few minutes Tuesday evening to say goodbye to two departing colleagues: Lynn Wilson and Sarah Fortney.
Wilson served for eight years, including several terms as chairman, and worked to get a half-cent sales tax referendum renewed in 2020 that continues to help build new schools and repair and maintain existing schools. He is retiring.
Fortney, who successfully advocated for increased counselors for students’ mental health needs during her four years in office, was defeated in the Aug. 23 primary. She was not at Tuesday’s meetings. She missed several meetings in September and October as she dealt with health issues and took care of her longtime wife following surgery.
Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt commended her colleagues and their dedication to the school district.
“I just want to make a couple of comments about some of my colleagues, but more than anything to say that this board, especially the past two years, has truly been a joy to work on. We may not always agree. We often disagree, but it has been very collegial and even when we’re having our worst days. I know that everyone that sits up at this dais truly is out there for kids,” said Wyatt. “So thank you, Mr. Wilson, for always putting the students first — and Miss Fortney as well. She couldn’t be here this evening … It’s amazing to be in Tallahassee and she can look at somebody across the hall and say, ‘That kid, he was in this year, in this class, he sat between Johnny and Sue. Oh, it’s Chad.’ She knows every student she’s ever taught and truly loves all of those kids. And so just thank you for your years of service, as well.”
Co-Chairwoman Lisa Miller, who won her bid for re-election last week, reminded those watching that she had to drop Wilson’s accounting class when she was his student at Polk State College.
“I knew very quickly that was not the field I was going to be in and when I started to run for office, I was clearly embarrassed that this class I had to drop, because I was not good at it, was my colleague’s. But on the campaign trail, Mr. Wilson has always been a professional who has dealt with people with that open heart of listening and transparency. And I used to tell him, I think we need to be more like Lynn Wilson. Lynn was the calming voice and, sometimes when it’s chaotic, even in the community and on the board. So I appreciate all you’ve done, Mr. Wilson, and what you taught me along the way, even though it wasn’t accounting because it wasn’t my thing. And I will be one of the people reaching out and now that you’re not on the board, we can talk a lot more. So that’s even better,” Miller said. “I will recognize Miss Fortney, which is another leader who, when I say lead, leads with her heart. I’ve never met someone so giving of theirselves and their soul to the students in Polk County.”
Miller said she could be anywhere with Fortney on School Board business and someone would know who she was.
“People would come into the offices and say, ‘That’s Miss Forney. She taught me or she taught my cousin,’” Miller recalled. “Literally someone who suffered for people. Like, if a teacher had an issue or a student had an issue, she took it home with her. And I watched that in awe because that’s difficult to do in advocacy and being in leadership. So the work she’s done here will be missed. You can tell that she crossed the lines of every political spectrum when you see the margin of that race — less than 1%. People knew she was transparent and she was authentic. You know, they say people, good leaders lead with … a compass in their head and a magnet in their heart and that was Fortney.”
Miller also acknowledged the homophobic slurs that Fortney and her wife, Mary, dealt with during the campaign. People plastered stickers on Fortney’s campaign signs, calling her a “porn peddler” because she voiced her opposition to an opt-in system in PCPS libraries for 16 books that County Citizens Defending Freedom complained were pornographic or indoctrinated children into the LGBTQ lifestyle. Two review committees voted to keep all 16 books at age-appropriate levels in Polk County schools.
Fortney, Miller, Kay Fields and Wyatt said at the time that that the district had long had an opt-out system that had worked and there was no need to change it. CCDF-backed candidate Rick Nolte narrowly defeated Fortney after he became the sole Polk County candidate to be endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
CCDF had worked to have the books permanently removed. The group then declared a victory when it looked like the school district might adopt an opt-in process through which parents approved their children reading those specific books, which would be kept behind librarians’ desk. They have filed a challenge to using only the opt-out process, which requires parents to opt their children out of specific books they don’t want them to check out of PCPS libraries.
“I appreciate Mary, the fact that Mary had to deal with, what she went through this last campaign,” Miller said about Fortney’s wife. “I want to thank them for not giving up and staying connected to this district and being an influence because I think they’re great people and I was so honored.”
Fields, who also won her re-election campaign this year, wished both of her departing colleagues well.
“I want to thank Mr. Wilson for his service on the School Board for eight years and your ability to continue, sometimes probably when you didn’t want to, is admirable and we hope and pray that you will enjoy your next path, whatever that might be. And we wish you and your family the very best,” said Fields. “And I also wanted to send out a message to Miss Fortney. She’s not here tonight, but I could not leave the meeting without thanking her. When Miss Fortney first came on the School Board, she and I were on the opposite end of the spectrum. And I think over the last four years, we have come together and at the end of the day, we might not always have agreed, but I know in my heart that she was all about what was best for the students. And so I’m going to miss her and I wish her the very best in whatever she pursues in the very near future. And God bless her and her family.”
School Board member Lori Cunningham thanked Wilson for his work.
“Congratulations on your retirement from Polk County School Board. You have admirably shown your servant leadership throughout your tenure. It has been a pleasure working with you and learning from your business acumen and your accounting knowledge,” Cunningham said. “My colleagues and I have totally enjoyed your wonderful sense of humor and your ability to offer a calming perspective during complex discussions. Dr. Wilson, thank you for your faithful service. Even through COVID, you showed up to all our meetings for the past eight years. Many blessings for God’s continued grace upon you and your beautiful family. My family and I wish you the very best as you begin this new chapter in your life.”
Cunningham did not mention Fortney.
During public comments, Rhea McKinney, who retired from teaching in 2008, but remains involved, thanked the board for their work.
“You have continually demonstrated patience with those attendees, some of whom are not from our county and some who demonstrated a lack of civility,” McKinney said. “But your actions spoke louder than their words.”
And then he specifically thanked Wilson and Fortney.
“I especially want to thank you for the work you did on the referendum,” McKinney told Wilson. “It was a tough sell, but you sold it beautifully. And we all benefit from that. Thank you and God bless you. And thank you for not retiring from education just from this board.”
He turned to Fortney’s empty chair, commending her for coming directly from the classroom to serve on the board.
“You brought with you a total commitment to our students that you demonstrate in so many years in the schoolhouse,” McKinney said. “That commitment is a great loss for all of our students and our staff that you will no longer serve on this board. I’ve known you for your entire career in Polk County Schools and I’m sure you will find ways to stay involved and continue to serve. Again, I thank each of you for your dedicated service.”
Wyatt presented Wilson with a plaque and set aside a plaque to be given to Fortney.
Wilson’s voice quavered slightly as he spoke.
“It has been an incredible honor and privilege to serve this community,” he said, pausing, “as a School Board member. You know, I think the, from my perspective, the one thing that I would ask of an elected official that, number one, they listen, that we listen to all of the interested parties in any particular matter, do your homework, and then make a decision that is in the best interest of our constituents, and I hope that that is my legacy. I hope that folks will say, you know, he listened, he paid attention to us, he went out and did his homework. And then he made a decision that was in the best interest of our school district. And that meant putting students first all the time.”
Wilson also took a moment to thank his colleagues on the board.
“I’ve had the privilege of serving with remarkable colleagues over the years and, and you know, we’ve not always agreed, but we’ve always found a path forward,” Wilson said. “You know, we’ve always found a way to build a consensus and, and get things done. This is a big ship. I mean, it’s one of the biggest school districts in the country. It is a — it’s a monster to move, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I know that frustrates teachers and it frustrates students and parents and constituents and staff members because they want something done. They want it done today, right? And it takes time to get things done. But I think we see a shift that’s moving and it’s moving in the right direction. We are very proud of that.”
He praised Superintendent Frederick Heid as an outstanding leader, whom the School Board hired last year after a lengthy process. He then addressed Justin Sharpless and Rick Nolte, who will take the oath of office next week.
“I hope you will realize that and make sure that we keep him on board for many years to come,” Wilson said of Heid.
After thanking the district staff for their help in the last eight years in helping him find answers to his questions, he also talked about his recent doctoral dissertation on the business of kindergarten-12th grade education. He encouraged the board and staff to find ways to help the students who do not want to attend college, but instead want to earn a trade or who struggle to find something that interests them. Polk County Public Schools has one of the top certification programs in the country to help students become everything from airplane pilots to chefs to electrical linemen and women to paramedics.
“We fall well short, quite honestly and frankly, on an international basis with those students who are not who are not traditional college-bound students. I refer to them as at-risk students. So that’s my passion and I’m going to continue to work on that ,” Wilson said. “Although I will be leaving the School Board, I’m still going to be involved in education and so I hope each of you know that you can reach out to me anytime. You have my number and if you need help with some research on something or if you need someone to advocate for something you’re doing, I’ll be here.”
In an email to LkldNow, Wilson praised Fortney.
“Ms. Fortney was a staunch advocate for students and teachers in the PCPS,” Wilson wrote. “Her extensive experience in the Polk County Public Schools was always well-received as she brought valuable insight into matters that were often complicated and complex, and even when we disagreed, we were able to find a path forward in serving our constituents.”
Superintendent Heid also emailed a statement to LkldNow about Wilson and Fortney.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about Ms. Fortney and Dr. Wilson. The level of professionalism and commitment exhibited by both Dr. Wilson and Ms. Fortney was exceptional,” Heid wrote. “Many do not understand the amount of time these individuals commit in service to our children and community. It is not a job that either took lightly and they demonstrated an incredible level of engagement and sincerity in our work to ensure that we provide the best possible experience for our students each day.”
Fortney emailed a statement to LkldNow, acknowledging what she, Lisa Miller and former School Board member Billy Townsend tried to do with their elections – Townsend in 2016 and Miller and Fortney in 2018.
“We started a movement in 2016 to change the culture of our district,” Fortney said. “I have been an active part of that movement for staff and students. I want to thank my supporters for their work and kind words. I never did it for the seat. I did it to be a voice for the profession I will always love. I held my head high and didn’t sink to slander and lies about the replacement. I pray that our staff and students continue to get the respect they deserve. To the schools I served and the people in them, I hope I made you proud and made a positive difference with your work.”
Fortney also commended Wilson.
“I always depended on Mr. Wilson when it came to budgetary votes,” Fortney said. “His knowledge was helpful.”
Sharpless and Nolte, along with Fields and Miller, will be sworn into office on Tuesday during a 9 a.m. ceremony.
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