In the wake of revelations that $8 million which was factored into the Manatee School District's 2012/13 budget simply doesn't exist, leaving a $3.5 million shortfall, tax payers, parents and students are rightfully stunned. However, board members who claim the budget simply wasn't presented correctly, without acknowledging their own failures in the oversight process, are shirking their roles as stewards of both a massive taxpayer investment and the education and welfare of this county's students, while doing nothing to inspire trust moving forward.
It seemed obvious at Monday's meeting that certain board members were poised to try and chalk this up to a terrible mistake – made by someone else – that they would begin the process of fixing. They should hardly be surprised that citizens in attendance were not nearly satisfied with such a plan. The Manatee School District's finances have been under a black cloud for a long time, during which board members have been warned by citizens, budget committee members and even other members of the board that numbers were not adding up and that the administration was not providing enough information to get a clear picture.
Over the past week, former superintendent Tim McGonegal has been asked a lot of questions by newspapers and TV news reporters, none of which were why he deliberately kept such information from the public while they were voting on a new board. McGonegal had a close relationship with board member Bob Gause, even accompanying him to at least one event on the campaign trail. Gause, who was board chair prior to Harry Kinnan, was facing a challenge from Linda Schaich, an activist who regularly gave comment to the board alleging bad arithmetic in the numbers presented by McGonegal and his finance team. Schaich was practically standing on a chair screaming that the numbers didn't add up. In a July interview, she told me she estimated a $6-8 million discrepancy, but was being stonewalled in her efforts to get more information.
Now, there is no question that had that information been made public, even in early August when McGonegal is claiming he first became aware of the problem, it could have meant trouble for Gause. In fact, as the incumbent (who'd been chair when the budget in question was approved), he might have even lost the election on that single issue alone, given that he was running against the person who'd been warning of such shortfalls for years. Schaich managed 44 percent of the vote, despite being outspent more than 2-1 by an opponent who had at least the implied endorsement of the superintendent. There are also a lot of reasons to believe knowledge of the shortfall dates back much further. The district's finance department reported its first giant fund deficit in May, after it was positive in April and without a downward trend. After May's report, the department simply stopped giving reports.
Fielding softball questions, McGonegal chalked his last-second switch to holding himself accountable to the same degree that he would his staff. To what degree that might be, one can only guess, because thus far, no one has been held accountable to any degree whatsoever. Instead, McGonegal's move looks like an end around that allowed him to resign, rather than be terminated with cause, and even name his successor in doing so.
It seemed very clear at Monday's meeting that Gause, Kinnan and school board attorney John Bowen all came to the meeting prepared to install assistant superintendent Gagnon, which Gause very quickly moved to do, taking some of the other members by surprise. Public comment gave school board candidate Dave Miner a chance to weigh in, and the man nicknamed the “Watchdog” seemed to pick up what they were putting down, and he attempted to slow down the process. The former prosecutor hit Bowen with a quick round of rapid fire questions, which made it clear to other board members that they had options, like a temporary appointment with the understanding that the interim superintendent would not seek the position.
Kinnan dismissed Miner's concerns and reminded Gause he'd made a motion, asking if he heard it again. Gause pressed the idea of not only accepting McGonegal's resignation and following his advice to appoint Gagnon, but suggested that their only course was to do so under such terms that Gagnon would be appointed immediately and serve as superintendent all the way until the time someone (possibly Gagnon himself who would not agree to refrain from seeking the position) were hired on a permanent basis. Bowen reminded him that he'd have to also stipulate compensation, which Bowen suggested be McGonegal's own salary of over $170,000 per year (a monthly raise of over five grand). They also threw in the sweetener that Gagnon's old position be reserved, with a protection from non-renewal through the end of the 2013/14 school year.
There are good arguments for someone in Gagnon's position to insist on such protections, and there are good reasons for him not to accept the interim post. But there are better reasons for the board to be wary of the situation as presented. When someone resigns or is fired under these circumstances and an immediate interim must be named, it is very common, especially when there is not unanimity among decision makers and/or the public, to name someone with the understanding that they cannot seek the office or position for themselves.
The thinking is that if a person is installed in the position on an interim basis, they will have an inherent advantage over other candidates and might even dissuade qualified applicants from seeking the post. As such, it's also a way to prevent a political power play, in which dire circumstances are manufactured in order to prompt a desired result.
Gagnon remarked to the board when the subject came up that they needed him more than he needed the position. On Monday night, that may have been true, which is all the more reason the board should tread lightly. The school board is already on its knees from being kicked in the gut, but that shouldn't be a reason to stay there and plead for someone to take over. They now have until the September 24 meeting to decide what's next, as they ultimately approved Gagnon only temporarily.
While Gause, Kinnan and Bowen were very comfortable in moving forward full speed with Gagnon, board members Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter and Barbara Harvey were not. All three wanted to take their time and respect the process. The board is in a unique position and there may yet be a silver lining to come from this mess. The fact that a new, permanent superintendent is unlikely to be on the job before spring break means that there will be time to sort out the budget fiasco. The fact that the job of interim superintendent will be temporary, also creates a likelihood that they can find a retired superintendent, uninterested in a full-time position, with plentiful experience in budgetary matters, to come in, oversee an outside audit and clean house where needed.
Someone of that nature, who is unconcerned with stepping on toes or building long-term relationships/alliances within the administration, would be also best positioned to oversee an efficiency audit and advise the board on difficult decisions that do have to be made. That way, the new permanent superintendent can come in and begin the healing process, and hopefully move the district forward. If Gagnon is interested in being that person, it would seem that his best path forward would be holding down the ship until the long-term interim is in place, then returning to the curriculum department – where he only arrived last school year – and doing a good job in that very important role. Then he could apply for superintendent if he chooses, just like anyone else.
If Gagnon is installed as the interim through the entire period, it looks like a lose/lose situation. If he is then hired permanently, the public perception that his coronation was orchestrated by McGonegal, Bowen, Gause and Kinnan (three of whom are gone, or on their way out) will be hard to overcome. If he's not, he'll have to work under a new superintendent who is coming in under very awkward circumstances. He'll have to help transition that person into the new role, as he himself transitions back into a subordinate one, as does whomever picks up the slack in curriculum while he's at the helm. All of that has the potential to sour morale even further – something this district cannot afford.
As for the board, it would do best to show a little more humility in light of the colossal manner in which it has failed the taxpayers, teachers, students and parents of Manatee County. Some board members seemed annoyed by the mood of those in attendance Monday night, their body language seeming to ask What do you want from me, I didn't do it? The likely answer is that many of those who showed wanted three resignations. Gause and Kinnan have both served as chair while financial matters went sideways. They routinely deferred to the superintendent and were dismissive of other board members, as well as members of the public who tried to warn that things were askew. The audacity of the two of them trying to ram through the next step in fixing a problem they refused to recognize was over the top.
Barbara Harvey appeared cognizant of how stark her 180-degree turn toward a board member suddenly comfortable questioning policy must have seemed, as she out of nowhere began asserting that while those watching might not remember seeing her questioning the superintendent's numbers, she nonetheless confronted him regularly in “private meetings” when she saw numbers that didn't look right. Someone might have reminded Harvey of a June 27, 2011 meeting when she actually said that it wasn't her job to question the superintendent, but to support him. I was so blown away by the line that I wrote an entire column on it.
Harvey was responding to then-freshmen board members Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter. It was the first budget since they had been elected the previous November and both expressed tremendous discomfort with the extremely vague and imprecise budget presentation being given by McGonegal that claimed to do much, while showing very little. Carpenter and Aranibar had already been rocking the boat and were told over and over during the meeting how important it was that the board was unified going forward. Gause, who was serving as chair, tried to pacify each of them throughout the meeting, telling them time and again that he'd seen whatever it was they were unsure about, and all was well.
McGonegal, like many other administrators, preferred private, individual meetings in which to brief board members. Aranibar and Carpenter preferred emails and public meetings where there would be a paper trail and public record. For two years they have been marginalized by administrators and board chairs and ridiculed by a local media favorable to the administration – to the point where an editorial in another publication appeared the very day McGonegal would announce discovering an $8 million dollar shortfall, opining that his retirement should be no surprise given their penchant for “micro-managing” district affairs.
That "micro-management" seemed well-intended and desperately needed then, and it clearly seems much more so now. If not for Aranibar and Carpenter and their dogged determination to live up to the position they had been entrusted with, as well as candidates like Schaich and those who served on the budget committee that McGonegal simply disbanded when it started turning up questions, which in light of recent revelations were for good reason uncomfortable, there is no telling how long this quagmire might have been shell-gamed.
The school district and board of Manatee County has for too long been a soft landing place for the politically well-connected, as well as teachers and other administrative staff willing to go along for the good of their cause. Tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone toward success in the classroom has been wasted over the years in padding salaries and creating indefensible positions for those whose loyalty assured that the district's patronage system would remain intact.
The house of cards has finally fallen. No longer flush with nearly a billion-dollar budget, the district cannot endure the cronyism, nepotism and incompetence that have long plagued it – and the fact that it is a bottom quarter school in a bottom quarter state, makes it hard to imagine it ever could. Taxpayers, parents, teachers, and most of all students, deserve more board members with the dedication of Aranibar and Carpenter. With a little luck, they can finally get the house in order and begin what is sure to be a tough row to hoe in righting a ship that has not only been driven woefully off-course, but ran aground.
Disbanding School District's Budget Committee Sends the Wrong Message
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.