News Section: Politics
Interview: Manatee School Board Member Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter was elected to the school board in 2010 and immediately made her presence felt as a force for change. Carpenter helped bring to light millions in financial malfeasance and then served as the board's chair in 2013, providing critical leadership during one of the district's most unstable periods in its history. TBT asked Carpenter what she has learned in the last four years and why she's asking voters for another term on the board.
TBT: What are the most important issues facing the district today that you are excited about helping to work through in a second term?
KC: The most important issue is to harness all energies and focus on the students and the classroom. I plan to work on generating additional resources, both financial, and volunteer, including business partnerships to support the classroom. There is a critical need to continue the gains already made in student scores, and to monitor and ensure that the financial and operational aspects are fully transparent, controlled and managed properly. We must continue the standards of integrity and competence put in place with the superintendent and his leadership team.
TBT: What accomplishments are you most proud of in your first term?
KC: I am most proud of my courage and tenacity and my ability as Board Chair to steady the organization during a very turbulent time, when there was the abrupt and unexpected resignation of a superintendent, accusations of wrongdoing at several high schools, and lots of negative news stories about the district.
I am also proud that my experience in managing organizations and my integrity helped me to identify that there were substantial organizational and financial problems. It took nearly two years for these problems to be acknowledged due to cover-ups, bullying, denials, attacks, retaliation by members of the former administration and their henchmen and henchwomen. These problems went far beyond a typical dysfunctional bureaucracy, but were reflective of true corruption, and represented a significant departure from our central mission of educating students.
As board chair, I focused on rebuilding and establishing systems and processes that were fully inclusive of students, all sectors of the community, staff, in establishing a Citizens Superintendent Search Committee, and insisted that all interviews be in the Sunshine, recorded and available to the public. With the help of the Florida School Board Association, I reached out and recruited a seasoned interim superintendent from outside the district. I recruited qualified volunteers for a new Citizens Audit Committee, oversaw the establishment of independent audit and new legal services, with integrity and competence, with full accountability to the board. I also ensured that the new superintendent received guidance from outside the district during his transition.
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 become a great district are we currently at?
KC: There is, thankfully, a gigantic difference. There was a culture of disrespect for teachers. The welfare of the students was ignored. There was noncompliance with the Auditor General and the Jessica Lunsford Act; problems were being swept under a huge rug. Nepotism, cronyism and fraternization ran rampant. The audit function was marginalized, and the audit committee ignored and reduced to irrelevancy. Job descriptions were watered down for ‘special’ hires.
There is now a commitment to compliance with the Auditor General, to integrity, and performance standards of fairness and excellence. We have put a stake in the ground to mark the point of no return: to turn back would be to deny students the opportunity that they need and deserve and to breach our duty of service and our oath of office.
This district should not be about providing jobs for unqualified adults, or special deals for consultants and contractors, but about the classroom. We are at the very beginning of the journey, but the very early indicators, like FCAT scores and budget transparency, are positive. A major indicator of progress is the amount of resistance to change, which is notable, as new standards are required. I would guesstimate three to ten years for a fully realized, fully-functioning district.
TBT: What did you learn in your first term that you feel gives you experience to take into the future?
KC: I am combat tested. I know what’s important to do in order to stay on our mission of education. I learned how truly nonresponsive and slow the bureaucracy can be to change, and although accountability is harder to measure than in the private sector, there are metrics and standards that we can use.
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