News Section: Opinion
Manatee School Board Taking Small Steps in the Right Direction
The Manatee County School Board seems to have reinvented itself to some degree. It has managed to find some of the humility it will need to assume before moving toward regaining the trust of taxpayers as a steward of their investment in the education of this community's children. Far from out of the woods, the board still has to proceed through the most challenging portion of its journey, a thorough and honest investigation of how the $8 million shortfall came to be – no matter where it leads – as well as hard decisions on how to best go forward.
The difference in posture between the board's meeting Monday night and the hubris we saw September 10 was stark to say the least. Two weeks ago, board members Bob Gause and Harry Kinnan, along with board attorney John Bowen, clearly came to the meeting under the assumption that the board would move quickly toward an easy, if temporary fix. Having kept Superintendent Tim McGonegal's resignation from the public prior to the meeting, the two veteran board members quickly moved toward installing Bob Gagnon, one of McGonegal's assistant superintendents, as a long-term solution.
The rest of the board wasn't quite so comfortable. Having just learned of the Superintendent's resignation, and only days after he acknowledged the shortfall, they were not happy to be put on the spot deciding to install McGonegal's own recommendation – especially when Gause suggested that the immediate interim replacement be approved to serve indefinitely, while not being kept from seeking the position for himself.
The board ultimately approved him only until Monday's meeting, getting together with Florida School Boards Association Director Wayne Blanton in between. Board members Karen Carpenter, Julie Aranibar and Barbara Harvey made it clear that their preference was to search outside of current personnel to find the interim replacement who will likely serve until at least late spring. This is the right move. While Gagnon brings a fine record of success at the school level, he has only been Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum since the middle of last school year. He has very little experience at the district level and none with district-level budgeting.
His appointment was also tainted by McGonegal's endorsement, as well as Gause and Kinnan's press to put him on indefinitely. Again, for all of his credentials, having a disgraced ex-Superintendent and the two board members who were most complicit in his lack of oversight advocating for you can't help but create the impression that you're their guy. Every bump in the road going forward (and there are sure to be several) would occur under a cloud of suspicion, and if there was a perception that not enough accountability occurred, the public would surely suspect that a deal had been cut. Gagnon likely has a bright future with the district and is on a trajectory that may well see him in the top role at some point, and the stability he's provided over the last two weeks attests to that. The best way for his career to move forward would be success in his current role, while working with a new administration.
It's also important in this sort of situation that the interim superintendent be a temporary figure that does not have to worry about maintaining successful relationships in considering what actions to take in light of what the audit(s) reveal. The board made the right decision to seek a retired administrator from another community, in former Charlotte County Superintendent David Gayler. The fact that he is more than a decade and two superintendents removed from having worked as an assistant superintendent for Manatee Schools, might also be a benefit, as he will have some degree of familiarity with the district without having worked with most of the employees involved.
Now the board has to make the most of the interim time period. First, they must see that an exhaustive audit is performed which ensures that no stones are left unturned and no questions go unanswered. If the public gets a sense that the audit is little more than pageantry, there will be suspicion cast over every unpopular decision going forward. There might also be some pressure to go easy on some of the parties involved, especially if they are no longer with the district. They served well, they meant well, they didn't steal anything so under the rug it gets swept. If the district does not hold those at fault fully accountable, it will lose all accountability in instances where it will have to enforce its own rules and discipline lower-level employees. There cannot exist a climate in which employees can rightfully assert that there are different sets of rules for high level administrators and rank and file teachers and staff.
The board must also move forward with the oft-suggested efficiency audit. With the widespread perception that the district's administrative overhead is bloated and draining resources that could otherwise be applied to the classrooms, it is crucial to have a reputable outside firm audit the administrative roster and payroll to find duplication, as well as compensation levels that are not in line with either the employees' qualifications or pay levels for our area.
McGonegal routinely used his discretionary powers to move employees into new positions where job descriptions had been rewritten, allowing him to effectively give significant pay increases and promotions to favored administrative employees, as teacher pay stagnated. In light of both the financial position the district now finds itself in and the board's need to reestablish trust with the community, it must do significant house cleaning in this regard, and it must do it prior to a permanent superintendent being installed. Their job needs to be healing the district, not administering the wounds.
Finally, the board must continue to remind itself how little credibility it has with its constituency. Carpenter and Aranibar are the only two members who can claim to have attempted to right this ship before it went so woefully off course. Kinnan will thankfully not be seeking another term and no matter who replaces him after November's election, it would seem the taxpayers will be much better represented. To her credit, Barbara Harvey seems to have reconsidered her go along to get along, hands-off approach and has brought a healthy dose of skepticism to the most recent meetings.
Bob Gause, who was board chair through most of the time associated with the fiscal fiasco, maintains his seat knowing full-well that had McGonegal not kept the massive shortfall a secret from the public until after the elections, he would likely have lost. He also knows that given their close relationship, the perception is that it was kept secret deliberately for just that purpose. Given his ardent support of McGonegal and the obstructive role he played in Aranibar and Carpenter's efforts to get more budgetary answers while he was chair, many citizens justifiably expected him to resign in light of McGonegal's revelations. It doesn't seem that will be the case, but it is clear that his influence on the board has been greatly diminished.
If the board plays its cards right, it will be able to negotiate the rocky road before it, and possibly parlay an undeniable travesty into the sort of broad-scale reform it has long needed, but was otherwise unlikely to see. Voting the only two credible members to the chair and vice chair positions for the new board would be a good step in that direction. Reinstating the citizen budget oversight committee would be another. But if the board instead bungles the opportunity their ineptness has handed them, they'll deserve the public wrath that will surely follow.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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