News Section: Politics
Interview: Manatee School Board Chair Julie Aranibar
As far as first terms go, few politicians can claim to have had the sort of roller coaster as someone elected to the Manatee County School Board in 2010. The district has gone through epic trials and tribulations but is beginning to look like it's on the right course for success. TBT asked incumbent board chair Julie Aranibar what she has learned in these four years and why she'd like another term on the board.
TBT: What accomplishments are you most proud of in your first term?
JA: The School Board was given false financial information as well as some bad legal advice in the prior administration. To not have correct financial statements and information and also be told by the former board attorney that the Auditor General has no authority over the school district, can take no funding from us and their opinion is merely their opinion; turned out to be a costly mistake for the district. The truth is that for years the accounting and financial records were not correct, we were not addressing the issues of education and special needs children, and had parents suing the district to get the services that are required by law among other issues and concerns.
That scenario changed dramatically to where we are today and being part of the process of hiring a new superintendent for our county was and is the one most important highlights of my service this term. We chose to have a completely open process and no private meetings were held. We consulted with the Florida School Board Association, as well as the Florida Association of School District Superintendents and our Community Advisory Group. The collaboration with all working for the best decision for our district was a process we all can be proud of. The different groups all came to the same conclusion on our top five candidates for superintendent and the interview process was televised locally for public viewing.
We have made the transition to a superintendent who is well qualified and vetted and has delivered on promises made to take our district in the right direction academically while stabilizing the financial aspects of our over $600 million annual budget. Mr. Mills has demonstrated how to build a leadership team that will take Manatee County from the bottom of our state back to the top for academics and fiscal management. In each regular board meeting we have a report from education and operations, and it has given the board and public an opportunity to see and hear from the new team as well as the content and results on progress being made in the district.
The board only hires the superintendent, the board attorney and audit function, and I’m grateful to have been a voting member of our new team. The Audit function and Audit Committee have brought the board and public the assurance of proper function and processes for educational dollars for our students.
TBT: What are the most important issues facing the district today that you are excited about helping to work through in a second term?
JA: The district is at a vulnerable and critical point at this time. The first year of a new administration which is establishing proper operating and policy guidelines has brought a level of accountability that has not been seen in some time. It seems that for those who were used to how it was and believed that we were fine before, there is nothing this superintendent and board can do right. For those who feel that we are finally headed in the right direction, we see the increases in testing results across the board and so much more.
I recently met with Pat Barber (teacher union president) and she said her teachers do not fear our superintendent; some do fear their principals – not all of them, but a small number do. We have heard over and over that there is no need to make changes because the board will change in August and Mr. Mills will be voted out and we will go back to where we were before. This is the type of message that does not instill trust and progress but promotes gridlock and a continuing spin cycle of bad press and letters from those who are elected leaders of our community and others who are voicing concerns.
Last year was the first year that teachers were not given a pay cut in some time. We also were the first county in the state to negotiate all contracts for union employees and all staff had raises. There was no impasse and there were no protests and we recently had ASFME union representatives speak at public comment on how past issues are resolved, and there is trust in working with administration and support for the superintendent. We have worked collaboratively with the teacher’s union to come to consensus on an evaluation instrument. and the Board will have a workshop to discuss the details on this next week.
We are about to enter into contract to begin the policy and procedure review and changes and updates to our manuals. In most cases policy is up to 10 years dated and procedures are not consistent throughout the district. This has been cited in reports and has been the cornerstone of issues for Board and Staff. I look forward to updating and establishing policy and procedure to protect our district from being where we have been and ensuring this never happens again. Working on policy revisions takes years and being in healthcare administration, we lived with policy and procedure and quality control and this is something I am quite comfortable working with.
TBT: What did you learn in your first term that you feel gives you experience to take into the future?
JA: The first month of your first term you realize that thousands of people voted for you, but it takes three votes on the board. The change of the board and the questions I was asking did not sit well with former board members and when documents were not produced and budgets deteriorated to impasse on union contracts and pay cuts; it was not an easy time to be on a board. Things got worse when the former superintendent left and the reality of deficits and mismanagement were no longer a secret.
We have seen the worst of days for Manatee Schools and they are behind us. There is no other county in the state that has had a negative fund balance two years in a row or has faced the challenges we have faced. I’m a better board member for having gone through what we have and the training for board members is helpful in understanding the role of governance and not management of a district.
TBT: Where do you see the district now in terms of where it was when you were elected and where it needs to go; what point in the journey to becoming a great district are we currently at?
JA: I stated at the time of our vote for superintendent that we needed someone not to repair our house but to tear it down and rebuild a house of education for our students and staff and community. So, with that analogy, we have the drawings to guide us, the new foundation is poured and walls and roof are up. We are at that stage where the project may look messy, but within a few months we will have an election and our first line item balanced budget for our district. For the first time, we will see our educational dollars tied to the vision and alignment of our educational goals for our students. It is an exciting time to be on the board and I am thankful to see the district heading in the right direction and FCAT gains across the board for the first time since 2008 – what a way to close out the state FCAT testing!
The election this summer will decide if we are going back to past practices and management or moving forward with a vision that Mr. Mills has brought, with a qualified and experienced team that will take us to a top performing county in Florida. I think we are all ready to leave the bottom of the state rankings and close that chapter of Manatee history.
We have more fine tuning of departments to be done and investment in technology to get operations to be more efficient and technology for classrooms so students will be able to leverage technology in learning experiences. As departments integrate and academics and professional development is redefined and implemented, we are just completing our transition year, and I believe the educational gains we have already seen are ahead of where we expected, so we are within two to three years of exponential improvement in state rankings.
Julie Aranibar is currently seeking a second term to the Manatee County School Board.
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