Kailynn Bannon | Dec. 2
From public school teacher to local small business owner, to parental advocate, Polk County native Lisa Miller served the county for years before running for school board.
Miller, a wife and a mom of two children has lived in northern Lakeland for about eight years. After graduating with a degree in advertising and marketing, she worked for Lakeland’s newspaper, The Ledger, which was at the time a much larger newspaper owned by The New York Times. She also worked at a large advertising firm in Orlando for a while.
After marrying her husband, Bob Miller, they had their first child, Michael, who was born with a significant developmental delay.
“It kind of changes your life when you have a child like that,” Miller said.
After finding therapists and hospitals for her child, Miller turned back to substitute teaching, which she had done in college. With the new responsibility of being a full-time caregiver to a child with disabilities, this job worked best for her schedule.
She then ended up teaching in a classroom for a few years. After having children with disabilities in her classes, she saw unmet needs and left teaching to do advocacy work.
“I understood there were challenges and people trying to meet the needs of various kids,” Miller said. “They didn’t feel like they were supported or they didn’t understand what to do, and I thought the life for these kids is very different than what it should be.”
In 2014, Miller and her husband opened their real estate brokerage, which allowed her to travel and learn more about educational law, join committees and serve on advisory boards, including the Center for Autism Early Disabilities Board at the University of South Florida.
It wasn’t until later that year that a school board member encouraged Miller to run for the board because of her experience working with children with disabilities.
“They just didn’t have anybody with that background,” Miller said.
She ran for the District 7 seat on the Polk County School Board in 2014 but unfortunately was defeated by incumbent Tim Harris. The main reason she lost the race is because she had decided to run for the board so close to the election, so she did not have time to run much of a campaign.
“You have to get in by noon and I filed at 11 o’clock on the last day of qualifying, so I got in super late,” Miller said.
This setback did not stop her. She continued with her advocacy work and began preparing for the next election.
After running again in the primary election of August 2018, she won the school board seat with 56% of the votes against her opponent David Byrd. This eliminated the need for a general election.
Halfway through her first term, the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges for Polk County schools.
“It was a lot of chaos trying to manage e-learning and trying to manage the academic and social gap from [the pandemic],” Miller said.
While the pandemic created many problems for the school board to solve, Miller believes it prepared them for relying on technology and making it more accessible in the future.
“We went to one-to-one devices—every Polk County school board student has access to a device to take home with learning opportunities,” Miller said.
Miller believes many of the issues that evolved from the pandemic already existed, they were just widened when every student was sent home.
“[The pandemic] magnified the issues we already have,” Miller said. “If you had a parent at home that was engaged and you had Wi-Fi in your home, then you could keep learning. If you lived in a home where parents were not engaged…and you didn’t have Wi-Fi accessible or devices at home, before we even started talking about academics you were already in a deficit.”
After her first term, she decided to run again in the 2022 election.
“We have so much to do,” Miller said.
She thought about serving the community outside the school board, such as opening up her own charter school or starting nonprofits, but she ultimately decided that Polk County’s school board needed her background of involvement.
“If I leave the board the voice is gone,” Miller said. “Not that people don’t care, they just don’t have the life experience to keep these kids at the forefront of decision making.”
Her recent campaign was more difficult than the last. Because there were three candidates, she was not able to win the seat in the primary election so she had to campaign again for the general election. During this elongated campaign period, her family had to share the burden.
Miller’s 11-year-old daughter enjoyed all the fun of the election the first time around, but this year’s election was more of a struggle for her because her mom was always gone. Miller’s son, Michael, had to have help all day long, so it was difficult for her and her husband to be his sole caregiver. They did, however, find some help.
“We tried to hire staff,” Miller said “I’ve had a couple of really great kids out of Florida Southern that I’ve hired for him.”
Her 2022 campaign strategy was different from the last: to emphasize her history of involvement in Polk County’s schools compared to her opponent’s history.
“[The 2018] campaign strategy was different because it was two dedicated Polk County people, just with different backgrounds,” Miller said. “My opponent was a long-time educator, I was an educator, disability advocate and student teacher advocate.”
Miller’s opponent in this year’s general election was Jill Sessions, Plant City Director of Solid Waste. Sessions is one of the four people that was endorsed by the Republican Party pushing a slate of candidates. All four candidates signed a pledge on the “DeSantis Education Agenda”.
“I had never seen that before. It was frowned upon in the past to ever push a slate,” Miller said.
While the school board race is a nonpartisan affiliated race, Sessions ran as a conservative republican. Miller has emphasized the fact that she is registered as a non-party-affiliate.
The slate of candidates sent out text messages to citizens across the county pushing a false agenda and claiming that Miller was endorsed by the Democratic Party.
“Not only were they running illegal text messaging, but they were operating outside of any kind of rules,” Miller said. “I took it personally against my family because now you’re putting my family through more of a difficult race.”
As Miller enters her second term, she is setting her agenda according to her mantra: “To see a student successfully, you have to provide the support.”
“I think we have to manage growth, that’s my biggest goal,” Miller said. “Also we’ve got to work on our pipeline to leadership—our succession planning.”
If a person needed to be out of office due to an illness, emergency or death, developing plans of succession would have somebody step into that role the very next day.
Another goal Miller has for these next four years is working on budgeting. Last legislative session, the Governor allocated lots of money to first-year teachers, causing compression for long-time teachers.
“So veteran teachers might be teaching six, seven, eight years, and a new teacher will walk in making very much the same or close to the same money that [they’re] making,” Miller said. “And that is really poor staff morale.”
She wishes to bring back local control to reduce the compression and provide more money for those veteran teachers.
Another goal of hers is to help kids develop relational, conversational and other soft skills that are important for daily interaction that may have been hindered over the pandemic.
“We want to get kids diplomas, but to make them successful, you want them employable and independent,” Miller said.
According to Miller, all children learn differently, so it is the responsibility of the school board to come up with creative ways to teach their students. Miller is enthusiastic to continue working full-time on the school board and to develop approaches that provide every child in Polk County with the education they deserve.