News Section: Election 2012
Race Analysis: Manatee County School Board: District 4
In district 4, long-time education activist Linda Schaich challenges incumbent Bob Gause in a non-partisan race August 14. Schaich says taxpayers deserve greater transparency and fiscal accountability to ensure that resources are getting where they belong – the classroom. Gause acknowledges that much work needs to be done in both areas, but points to the success he says he's had in moving the ball this term, and promises that the district will be a very different place if he's given four more years on the board.
Schaich has dedicated tremendous time and effort to increasing fiscal accountability, using her background as a CFO to pour over budgets and other financial documents, often finding glaring inconsistencies and errors, despite difficulties in getting access to public records or follow ups when records are incomplete or do not add up. More than her opponent, Schaich is running against an administration that she says is bloated, out of touch with teachers and taxpayers, and more concerned with protecting its fiefdom and lavishing high-paying jobs on allies than solving problems in the classroom.
“I found miscalculations of 5.5 percent in last year's budget, or about $11 million,” Schaich said. “The administration finally acknowledged that it had over-calculated benefits and overstated its budget. They said that they were going to correct it in budget amendments and I cannot find anywhere where that's been done, or get any answers from them on it. Now this year's budget has all of these higher department budgets, when they are not showing that they fixed last year's budget. We need transparency. This is why they are creating so much mistrust among the taxpayers.”
Schaich is calling for an independent efficiency audit to determine how well money is being spent at the administrative level. She says that we need to look for duplication in positions and whether many of the compensation levels are justified. She also wants a financial audit by an independent agency to determine the true financial picture.
"If we get transparency, then we can start at ground zero and start talking about what can be done," said Schaich. "But until we know what those things really are, we're running in circles.”
Schaich has faulted the district for not using revenue from a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2002 as prescribed. She says it failed to eliminate portables, build and renovate schools and continue a pay-as-they go policy. Schaich has also criticized the mess that has become of the district's self-Insurance Fund.
"The fund does not have a reserve, as mandated by Florida law," she wrote in a recent op/ed. "It will take almost $14 million to bring this account to a break-even point, fund the reserve, and get in compliance with the Florida statutes."
Schaich says that as long as the district is allowed to “play shell games” with taxpayer money, the environment will stay the same. She says that by having someone with her accounting skills and determination, these issues can finally be addressed, and is confident that money can be found to meet the needs of the classrooms.
Gause cut his teeth as a member of the Student Advisory Council at Palmetto High, where his children attended school. He says it was frustration with the district's inability to meet the needs in the classroom that inspired him to run for office four years ago, and says that while change may not be happening as fast as many taxpayers would like, it's important that they recognize the accomplishments that have been made and see the direction things are headed, before they look at changing the board.
I asked him about the perception that the administration, which includes 42 employees that make over $80,000 (not including principals), is "bloated" and that many of the positions could be eliminated or done for less, as well as the practice of increasing administrative salaries by changing an employees job description .
“We're changing the way we're doing things,” he said. “If you look back, you'll see that the big run-up in administrative positions was between 2004 and 2007. When I got here, I was one of the people who was involved in changing the way we hired people and stopping that expansion.”
On the topic of job description changes, I give him a recent example of an employee who was making $43,000 and then put into a newly-written job description at $56,000 in the same department, and asked if taxpayers are getting an accurate picture when they are told of positions being eliminated and employees going long periods without raises if such practices are as common as many claim.
“You can take any one example and make an issue of it, but if you look at the numbers in the big picture, you'll see that we've got 59 fewer positions at $11 million less in cost,” says Gause. “Now not all of them are in administration, but I can promise you that we've changed the way we hire and promote. You look at Bob Gagnon (former Manatee Principal and new Director of Curriculum). I'm almost certain he took a pay cut for that position, and under the old way of doing things he wouldn't have been put in that position, because he didn't have the time in. I was one of the biggest people pushing the idea that we need the best person for the job in every position, back when we were still stuck in this mode of hiring whoever's turn it was -- and it really started with Scott Martin. We're putting the people in with the best skill sets. Tim (McGonegal) has changed the way he hires people, and it didn't happen by itself. I'm getting things done and in four more years, I know this district will be a profoundly different place.”
Gause says changes need to be made, but that they can't take place overnight.
“I believe that cuts have to be done with uniformity and compassion,” he said. “If you go in and just start cutting every position, you can create even more problems.”
On the classroom side, Gause said that the biggest problem is creating an environment in which everyone is on the same team.
“Morale is the biggest issue and I've said this before. Morale among our teachers was terrible when I got here, and it remains terrible today. We've got to improve that.”
Gause says that the key to educational success is more instructional time, and that he favors the straight schedule as opposed to block. He describes the challenge as getting a straight seven-class schedule, when the teachers are only under contract to teach five each day, instead of six.
“We've added time to the school day next year (because of the elimination of early-release Wednesday) and if the data has shown us one thing that improves academics, it's increasing instructional time.
Gause says that teachers can vote for a waiver on the limit, which requires 75 percent of the teachers in any school to approve. He said 72 percent of Palmetto High teachers voted to teach six classes, and that the district could probably find the money to pay for that at the 6 high schools, where he says it's needed most. But Gause said that such an issue enters the realm of collective bargaining and opens another can of worms with the union.
In the end, it seems that Schaich makes a good argument for having someone with her accounting acumen and tenacity for results on the board, especially given how many critical errors it's failed to notice, let alone resolve. Gause has also shown dedication through his SAC service and has a record to examine. He has clearly articulated what he believes has improved during his tenure, while laying out his vision for moving forward and acknowledging the continued need for change. Voters will need to decide on August 14 whether they're satisfied with the direction the district is moving and willing to be patient as it continues, or would prefer to shift the focus to transparency and fiscal accountability as is sure to be the case with Schaich.
Gause and Schaich will face off in a non-partisan race in the upcoming August 14 primary
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