News Section: 2012 Primary Special Features
Moates Wants to Take Broad Base of Experience to School Board
Teacher and former legislative aid seeks district 2 seat
Lakewood Ranch High teacher Robert Moates thinks his combination of experiences give him a unique perspective that would help strengthen a board that he does not feel has provided the kind of strong oversight the district needs. Moates says his experience in the classroom, along with stints in Tallahassee and Washington, give him an understanding of the big picture that will guide him in holding the administration accountable in working with teachers and principals to create an environment conducive to academic success.
Moates was a legislative aid to Congressman Dan Miller (R-District 13) and worked in several state legislative positions prior to leaving government to teach full-time in 2003. He says that his experience working at the legislative level will add a dimension to the current board, and that having someone familiar with pulling the levers in Tallahassee and Washington will be an invaluable asset to a board that needs to find big solutions in order to make the district more successful. He also points to a lack of classroom experience at the administrative and school board level and says that having someone who was born here, is a product of Manatee County Schools and is teaching in them right now is something that is desperately needed.
“In the top 10 positions in our district (board and administration),” said Moates, “there is no one with classroom experience, with the exception of Barbara Harvey, who left to go into administration back in Ronald Reagan's first term. We need that perspective.”
Moates recalled his experiences in Tallahassee in the 80's and 90's – calling it the Pork Chop Gang era – and said that he saw first hand what happened to districts that were left to their own devices, devolving into fiefdoms of the well connected, where student achievement languished near the bottom of priorities.
“There's still too much of that mentality in the way we do things in Manatee,” he said. “The only thing that is going to change that is a strong and proactive board that's doing its job and not accepting sub-standard results.”
Moates does not see block scheduling as the black and white issue that some others do. He says that empowering teachers by creating a well-defined system that is consistently implemented and properly trained on is a key ingredient that's missing.
“Block scheduling can harm the student-teacher relationship,” he explained, “but while it can kill math, it can help sciences, where they benefit from the longer labs where they can get in to more challenging stuff. It can help with reading, but then be terrible for foreign languages where there's not enough immersion with the longer periods of time between. Block or skinny, a schedule is not going to make it happen if these other things are not addressed.”
Moates bemoaned the size and expense of the administration and criticized an approach that he feels creates a bloated upper tier downtown.
“We got around $5 million in Race to the Top funds, so what did we do? We created 14 permanent positions. Whenever we're not achieving something, the solution becomes create a new job to micro-manage it, and then when the problem goes away, the position stays. It's the static bureaucratic structure that has been infecting bureaucracies throughout the history of government.”
Moates mentioned EdVantage, the supposed “strategic plan” that the district began implementing in 2006 to the tune of several million dollars and a staff of 36 in the “Core Team,” as an example of money spent without a clear agenda and no metrics from which to measure accountability.
“We spent millions of dollars on these little red triangles that went everywhere and all of these slogans that were supposed to be our objectives, but were little more than poorly-worded mission statements that were written in bad English because they were put out to committee. No one was given a clear understanding of what they meant or how they would be measured.” said Moates. “I would walk in every day and read the objective that was hanging up: By 2010 each student will continually demonstrate enthusiasm for the self-directed pursuit of knowledge. What happened in 2010? They changed it: By 2015 each student will continually demonstrate enthusiasm for the self-directed pursuit of knowledge. No one said timeout! We've spent millions of dollars, why hasn't this happened yet if it was the objective for 2010, and how are we even measuring it? Well, we're not because these things aren't designed to be measurable. That's where the board needs to step in, and it's not happening.”
When asked if he would have voted to extend the Superintendent's contract, Moates said, “I can only answer as a teacher and must accept that the current board members have a relationship and experience working with him that would give them a better perspective, but from the classroom? No, I'm not seeing it.”
For all of the resources dedicated to leadership development, Moates sees very little return.
“Our leadership training programs are woeful, that's the only term I can ascribe,” he said, shaking his head. “We spend all of this money on positions that are supposed to help foster strong principals and a lot of it ends up becoming on-the-job learning anyway. Too many people are put in these positions simply because they've gotten the degree, which is structured in such a way that it leaves them vastly unprepared to begin with, which is a separate issue, but the training and development is not near where it needs to be.”
Moates says that there have been some positive signs that give him hope that things can be turned around, especially as Florida phases out the FCATs and moves to national standards in 2014.
“It was a positive sign when Bob Gagnon (former principal at Manatee High) was put into his role in the curriculum department,” said Moates. “He was an assistant principal at our school and he was just great – a guy that says what's the rule, let's make it known and let's enforce it evenly every time. That was what he did at Lakewood Ranch and it made a world of a difference. That needs to be the approach we take for everything, and I'm excited to see him bring that into such an important role. He brought an attitude of I'm going to take this very serious and I'm very excited about some of the things that teachers will be seeing.”
Moates says that such evenhandedness has not always been the case, and that the district has had a lot of problems because leadership has avoided making hard and fast rules, or enforced policies on a case-by-case basis, and differently depending who's handling it from the top. He says that approach only leads to staff thinking they're being singled out for personal or political reasons, whether it's the case or not, and that again, it's a proactive board that needs to recognize where these things are missing and act.
"Someone needs to be watching the forest,” he said, “not just the trees. That's the role of an active school board.”