For two days this week, the Manatee School Board conducted extensive interviews, hoping to fill the vacancy for the district's next superintendent. The process included six candidates who were chosen from the 29 applicants seeking the position. All told, there were about 14 hours of rapid-fire group and one-on-one interviews, a grueling format that allowed each prospect to display grace under fire. Nonetheless, the most challenging part lies ahead: deciding who will become the new captain of a ship that has drifted woefully off course.
I had the opportunity to serve on the Citizen's Advisory Group (CAG), which met weekly throughout the process in order to vet the original candidates and make a non-binding recommendation of five finalists to the school board. Dr. Wayne Blanton, a consultant with the Florida School Boards Association, conducted a concurrent vetting and also recommended five finalists to the board. It turned out that both the CAG and Dr. Blanton had submitted the exact same list of finalists. The board, who'd also vetted the applicants independently, voted to invite those five candidates for interviews, along with another, whom Dr. Blanton had named as his alternate.
All six of the candidates accepted the invitation to come to Manatee County this week, and each interviewed with the board as a group, both unions (MEA and AFSCME), the CAG, and then again individually with each member of the board. The meetings were public and each candidate's interview with the board as a group was televised. Students representing every high school in the district were even brought in to ask questions from their perspective. Thorough is the first word to come to mind.
The process involved a broad group of stakeholders and reflected the diversity of their priorities and concerns. Still reeling from the disclosure of a massive budget shortfall, many wanted to hear a concrete vision for building a finance department where multi-million dollar oversights could not fester undetected and transparency reigns. In a county hampered by economic stratification, many wanted to hear proposals for closing the achievement gap or increasing parental involvement in high-poverty schools. Others wondered how candidates would work to restore trust with parents and taxpayers, or build morale with teachers whose pay has suffered, while budget constraints and state requirements on class size and achievement have only made their jobs more difficult.
As varied as the concerns and priorities seemed, they all spoke to one common reality: the entire community is desperate for positive change. No matter how much or how little I tend to agree with each school board member, there is no doubt in my mind that without exception, each one wants to hire the best superintendent available and begin to build a better district. There is no question that the rank and file employees of Manatee Schools are hungry for dynamic leadership; or that the teachers, students and parents eagerly await an approach that is more effectively directed at classroom success.
There is also no doubt that we are fortunate to have attracted a pool of talented and capable educational administrators who very much want the opportunity to help this district achieve. All six candidates proved themselves to be gifted professionals, awash with innovative ideas backed by tangible evidence of success at prior posts. They each brought different skill sets to the table, but if I were building a school from scratch, I can honestly say that I'd feel fortunate to have any one of them involved.
Then reality sets in. Manatee County is not building anything from scratch and it's not operating from a position of strength. We have very deep and specific challenges that could overwhelm even a highly-competent superintendent. A somewhat superficial external audit has demonstrated the complete inadequacy of our budgeting process, as well as an absence of essential systems for self discovery and corrective action. There is a leadership vacuum exacerbated by the fact that nearly the entire executive staff has been at their job for less than two years and did not ascend as the result of exhaustive outside searches. The district continues to be plagued by low morale and deep disconnect between the classroom and downtown, while mistrust among taxpayers remains at an all-time high. And don't forget, we're also a bottom-third district in terms of academic performance.
Unfortunately, our school district doesn't just need a highly-skilled superintendent. It needs a game changer. At the end of the day, if we are not able to effectively change the culture of a district that has for too long been mired in the good old boy system of politics and patronage, the opportunity to implement an ambitious academic agenda will not exist, regardless of how much talent stands at the helm. Our district is broken at the top, which impedes everything beneath.
The next superintendent of Manatee County Schools must be capable of much more than a district should typically expect. They must have a deep and thorough understanding of financial systems that will allow them to directly oversee a complete overhaul of our budgeting, accounting and auditing processes. They must have the leadership presence to steward a district and its community through what will almost certainly be an extended period of employee transition as we better align resources with needs. Perhaps most importantly, they must possess the many intangibles needed to affect that profound change in culture we so desperately need.
That's a tall order to say the least, but next Wednesday, school board members will have to make a choice as to who among the six finalists is best suited to guide our ship out of dark waters. The decision will almost certainly be the most important one they will ever make as members of the board. There is no question that the stakes are high, or that selecting someone not well-suited for such an enormous job would be disastrous at best. Such tasks are clearly among the less glamorous aspects of public service. I commend their work thus far and wish them luck in summoning the insight and courage to make the right choice. Remember, that wayward ship is filled with the students, teachers, parents and taxpayers of this community – all of whom are counting on your collective wisdom at this critical moment.
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.