News Section: Opinion
Guest Op/Ed: Creating Accountability Downtown
“I believe we must have new people in charge of our school system if we are going to change the direction of our school system. I believe we must have accountability downtown if we are to deliver the high quality education our students deserve.” I said those words when I announced my run for this office against Harry Kinnan in July of last year. I believe them even more today. The students, teachers and taxpayers of Manatee County deserve a brand new start.
We do not have a revenue problem in Manatee County, but a spending problem. And we need more than words or promises in order to earn back the trust and belief the past administration and board have squandered. It will be only through the actions, moving forward, of the new administration that the respect of the citizens can be gained. With that said, there are immediate steps to be taken and longer term changes that must be implemented. First, a full audit of the school systems finances must be done by an external firm and those responsible for the misappropriation of more than eight million dollars should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
While the audit firm performs their duties we must begin to fix the damage done. There is no one magic bullet or perfect step we can find to fix this failure. We must begin to repair the hole in our finances where it happened, with immediate cuts to our non-classroom areas. Certainly there is low-hanging fruit from the district offices that can be eliminated.
(info from the line item budget for fiscal year 2012-13, July 31, 2012)
Cell phones $28,000
Out of county travel $79,000
Dues and Memberships $145,000
That these items are still being budgeted for in downtown departments at a time where we cut salary and services to our schools is just one example of the poor priorities of the administration. And while it is only a quarter of a million dollars, I consider it a good start. We must put everyone in our district's organizational chart on a 6 month notice. Those positions must be able to justify their existence in Florida statute as a legal requirement for the district or that position should be eliminated. The plan offered last Monday night relied upon volunteer vacancies to occur in our administration and not be filled. If we can do without them in 6 months, I believe we can do without them now. That would bring total district level savings up to $2,000,000.
We must then begin our long-term changes to look for savings. We have three administrative centers, each with extra room, the Matzke complex, the Professional Service Center and the School Board Administration; they should be combined and the emptied space then leased to provide a revenue stream, until such time as they can be sold. If our departments need a little extra room, I suggest they use portable classrooms. Having taught in one for the last 10 years, I can assure our administration they make quite good office spaces. We must partner with our employees (classroom and school site) to cut on our energy bill. Last year, Southeast High School saved over $100,000 by creating incentives for the employees to cut energy cost, yet the program is never encouraged to every site. As every business person knows, people and employees respond to incentives. Since our employees are never made aware of their energy usage, they have no standard to create savings.
We must create a zero-based budget going forward, where each expenditure can be justified or eliminated. Our budget must be posted online in a searchable, easy to understand format for all to see. “Budgetary transparency leads to more responsible spending, more citizen involvement, and improved accountability. A budget that is not transparent, accessible, and accurate cannot be properly analyzed, its implementation thoroughly monitored, or its outcomes evaluated” (Florida Statutes 1011.035 (1)). And per our state statutes, every contract the district has with an outside vendor must be posted on our website. Our taxpayers deserve to see a return on investment for every program or service we purchase. Every consultant for this district will have their contract publicly displayed. They will be linked to how they improve the education of our students, or they should be eliminated. Taxpayers must be able to see how each spending decision adds to or enhances a student’s education.
The new zero-based budget should also reflect our changing district priorities. We have to make sure our biggest expenses are taken care of first, not last. Currently, our teachers are working without a contract - again. I cannot create a personal budget without starting from my mortgage and working to less important spending. Yet our district has paid for their dinners out and now can’t meet their most important bill: hiring enough teachers to meet our constitutional requirements. Putting our classrooms and students first in every decision has to be our standard.
Yet, the most important decision before the board will be the selection of the new superintendent. Nothing we do will have more effect on our students over the next four years than this choice. That the district is in desperate need of real and substantive leadership is apparent. The board must come together and set a structure and process to ensure our choice is the right one.
I believe that our new superintendent must have a vision for our school system that lasts beyond his or her tenure and they must be able to articulate that vision. They must be able to answer the essential question: What shall be our goal for a student starting kindergarten and what will our system look like by the time they graduate?
They must be proactive. It is not enough to react to each and every decision from state or federal politicians. We must work to be the education model that other systems copy and state laws are based.
He/she must have strong organizational leadership skills. In Manatee County today, our departments are too often pulling in different directions. In the past year, one professional development day for teachers was spent encouraging our teachers to text and Facebook with students during class. Yet according to the district, such behavior is punishable for students and terminal for teachers. Our tech department purchased software that has proven buggy at best and resulted in huge additional expenditures in both tax dollars and man hours.
Our new leader must be trustworthy and empower our teachers and staff. If we want our students to achieve, we must set our teachers free to adapt and structure their classes to best benefit those students. Our current one size fits all approach to education, where millions of dollars were spent so distant specialists could make uniform decisions for every class, has been a disaster. Yet we want to take the same approach as we transition to our common core standards. It does not work now and will not work in the future. We must trust our teachers to reach the goals set for their students and hold them accountable for both success and failure.
This decision cannot be made by the school board alone. We must be able to create a search committee comprised of stakeholders from each part of our community. Our students, parents, teachers, support staff and administration must be represented along with our business sector and our taxpayers. We must engage and get input from the wider community. We have to create a website where every citizen in Manatee County can receive information and comment on our process in real time. Every document must be available to anyone who wishes to view it. And every meeting must be open to the public and broadcast to those who can’t attend.
I decided to run for school board because I believed we needed new leadership in our school system. Leadership focused upon the future and not the past. Leadership which will put our students first while making sure every dollar we spend is spent wisely. We must be able to prove that leadership through our consistent actions. I am a teacher. Every day I stand in front of my students and am held accountable by them. That is why I am proud many of my former students have helped my campaign and advocated on my behalf. There is no greater endorsement I can receive. It is our students that matter most in the process of selecting a new superintendent. It is our students that matter most in how we spend our precious tax dollars. Our administration must be held accountable to the same standards our students and teachers are held. That has not happened. As a member of the School Board, I will make sure it does.
Robert Moates and Dave Miner face off in a November 6 runoff for the seat being vacated by Harry Kinnan. It is a nonpartisan, countywide election, meaning any registered voter in Manatee County can vote in the race.
Click here to add a comment to this page