News Section: Opinion
What Manatee Needs To Hear, Mr. Mills
Your long-awaited arrival is less than two weeks away, Mr. Mills. The honeymoon of six months or more which most superintendents enjoy in making initial decisions may be curtailed here because of the gravity of Manatee’s school district problems. In fact, you may have defined your own honeymoon span by promising to execute a 100-day entry plan, focusing upon budgeting and long-range preparation; this plan coincides with the end of the school year, June 30.
Your arrival will be met with eagerness or fear, depending on whether an employee is skilled or inept, or whether a board member is willing and able to stand the heat. When you start putting things in order, we fully expect a noisy, tense process. Our community members want reassurance that the district’s business is being handled responsibly by capable administrators. They are tired of being bombarded with evidence of incompetence and duplicity in the management of our public schools. The following statements are a composite of what several residents want to hear from you.
1. The District will become a better neighbor.
In a recent case involving a coach’s personal behavior, the district did not follow the law and created a major problem for local law enforcement through foot-dragging, pre-judging, and grandstanding. Our rogue board attorney, John Bowen, again made a bad situation worse. Why is he still here? Don’t we have enough distractions?
Meanwhile, while our county government will place a half-cent health care sales tax before the voters in June, the school district has made passage more difficult by failing to meet its building construction promises in an ongoing half-cent sales tax measure passed by the voters in 2002. The public cannot be blamed for reasoning that if they cannot trust the school district, why have faith in the county‘s promises?
District decisions in both of these matters were short-sighted, selfish and foolish, while creating obstacles for neighboring agencies. Most children learn that their actions have consequences. How did our central office administrators miss this important lesson?
2. Every staff position will be filled by qualified personnel.
We expect that some form of personnel audit will be part of your entry plan. In hiring decisions in our district, nepotism and cronyism have long trumped skill sets. The public believes that since you are coming in March, you will be able to defer administrator hiring for the 2013-14 school year, until you have had a chance to review administrative qualifications. If present administrators successfully ram a series of contracts through the board for next year before you arrive, your effectiveness will be sorely compromised.
3. I will offer you my apologies, when appropriate, because the buck stops on my desk.
The public understands that because of bad habits, long-ignored policies, wholesale disregard for sound budgeting practices, and gamesmanship by staff members, errors will likely be made in your decisions to implement your 100-day plan. Mistakes in wholesale restructuring are understandable, but as long as you do not revert to cover-up mode, you will be fine.
When you publicly cite an error of your own making, you will find our public to be a sympathetic lot. On the other hand, if a newspaper reporter or budget activist catches errors you concealed, your stock will plummet. For six years, we listened to Dr. Dearing, who never made a mistake; for three years to Dr. McGonegal, who spent much of his time deflecting tough decisions and fabricating responses; and for six months to three interims (mostly Dr. Gayler) ignore our problems. No matter how troubled our history and how obviously old problems were affecting the present, Gayler always tried to move us toward territory where there was no controversy and no apologies necessary. Consequently, we are worse off than when he arrived, since our old problems festered in his wake.
When you make a mistake, please say so publicly and take full responsibility. At first, the board and citizens will be confused by candor, which they have not seen for a while, but they will ultimately respond appreciatively. They want a tough, honest, hard-working administrator with a touch of humility. If you make an occasional mistake and admit it, that just makes you more like us and will bring us closer. If you insist that problems be sent directly to you, then the district will likely get to the bottom of its problems quickly, as your organizational skills and discipline kick in.
4. The School Board will stay on the quiet side of the law.
Beyond sports and MTI, Manatee has dozens of other reasons to be proud of its schools. Yet, because we became fixated on the law during the Dearing years and never lost this fascination, the board has continued to spend big sums of money and inordinate blocks of time in defending itself and tilting at windmills. Consequently, attention that rightly should have been devoted to our numerous school successes and to planning more of them has often been diverted to legal matters.
This contempt for the law has spilled over onto our administrators in matters such as the previously discussed football coach investigation. Because authorities were not notified of serious charges in a timely manner as required by law, weeks have passed with little else in the newspapers beyond fallout from an ongoing, expanding investigation.
We can only hope that with Board Attorney Bowen’s June 30 departure, our propensity to engage in costly, foolhardy lawsuits will also go away. A veteran administrator told me years ago that the best legal support she received was often the least visible, and that it stressed avoidance rather than confrontation. Many would like to see you give those notions a whirl.
I am sure you get the idea. Treat us like adults. Do not set up slush funds. Do not try to dazzle us with sleight-of-hand tricks. Answer our questions directly and honestly. Remember that no matter how distressing your findings, these problems are unlikely to surpass the rampant suspicions which currently abound in our county!
When the special interest folks come calling, and they soon will, tell them that special interests in the new Manatee District are now restricted to students and their school experiences. Do not tell us, as one of your administrators unwisely did, that we need you more than you need us. We know our children and community in ways that you do not. Many of us have attended and/or worked in our schools. We are attuned to the rhythms of life in Manatee and are willing and able to get in step with you to make needed changes.
We know that for too long our board members have been spectators rather than regulators and greeters rather than policy-makers. It will probably be difficult for the two veterans on the board to make the adjustments necessary under rapidly changing conditions. Be prepared to provide special coaching.
We love Manatee County and have been disappointed in the management of our schools for the past ten years. This is where you come in. When you cause collateral damage in getting us back on track, we will support you because we recognize that you are going to have to do more than simply rearrange the furniture.
We need each other and want to help you succeed, so that our children can thrive. Do we have a deal, Mr. Mills?
A retired educator with two earned doctorates, Richard Jackson has taught from sixth grade through graduate school. He has extensive experience as a grants writer, school administrator, columnist and lobbyist. He has written more than 300 columns over the past three years on the state of the Manatee School District for the Tampa Examiner.
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