News Section: Opinion
Guest Op-Ed: Incumbents are Pivotal in School Board Elections
As I sit down to write this, it’s with mixed feelings but with the compelling commitment that “we the people” need to act and vote on the upcoming school board election with the best information available to us.
My wife Betty and I moved to Bradenton in late 1967 for me to initiate my practice of medicine. In early 1968, I was asked to play a leadership role through the Manatee County Medical Society to help define our evolving emergency medical services program. In July 1969 I proudly accompanied commissioner Dan McClure and presented certificates of completion to 26 men and women who had completed our first EMT program at our technical school. Thus, Manatee County was in the ambulance business.
Over the years I have continued as a volunteer in our educational programs and am proud to say we still educate all our EMTs at our local vocational school, MTI. I often quip about being the oldest living volunteer in our school district – 76 years old, 47 years of volunteerism.
During that time, I have watched the good, the bad, and the ugly in our district. Since September 10, 2012 we have become increasingly aware of serious operational and financial problems in our district and it seems like, for a while, every week we read of a new scandal or financial setback. However, after only one full year of a new administrative leadership team, we have seen dramatic and most impressive improvements in both the financial and operational status.
We are now on the threshold of an election whereby three positions are up for election or re-election. We need to understand all candidates, their motivation for running, their performance and vision for going forward. I’m convinced that to get a clear view of where we want to go, we must have a good perspective of where we are and how we got here.
Historically, from my perspective, we have had serious operational and financial problems that started back some eight or nine years ago. To understand this better would be to discuss who was our administrative leadership.
It was rapidly recognized that the school district needed a top notch superintendent and under the leadership of the chair, Ms. Karen Carpenter, a 24-member group of local businessmen and educators was formed and did a national search. March 20, 2013, Mr. Rick Mills was appointed Superintendent. Rick was chosen because: 1. he has demonstrated the skill-set necessary for our job; 2. he has been a part of two teams that previously did turnarounds in two other major school districts, and 3. he’s disciplined and has the courage, and determined willingness to turn our district around.
Rick was given the charge of cleaning up the operational and financial messes as soon as possible and get our district back to the excellence we last had during the Gene Whitt and Dan Nolan administrations. Mr. Mills came to Manatee being told he had a $3.14M deficit he had to straighten out, reserves that had to be brought back up to state standards, and to define his senior administrative staff.
The rest is history – he has thus far found over $45 million in mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance, and it’s still growing. In his first year he has accomplished a financial recovery that went from an $8.5 million deficit to a $13 million surplus that was deterred only by the state demanding $5.9M+ repayment for financial failures and fiscal mismanagement.
Mr. Mills has been plagued with scandals in the athletic department of Manatee High School with indictments and felonies of at least four coaches and administrators. He found that many central administrators, and senior staff had to be changed because most were incapable of handling our county’s largest local business. We taxpayers spend nearly $600 million of our hard earned money annually to support our school district.
A State audit had lawmakers proclaiming that our district is the most toxic of any in the state, and that they are “embarrassed” at the conduct that has taken place.
Also, upon his arrival Mr. Mills found that our students were testing very poorly against other districts in the state and there were very few relevant operational policies and procedures that were current. Said another way, we truly had an operational and financial catastrophic collapse.
Well, what is the status now? The latest testing of our children has improved so much that Pam Stewart, the secretary of the Department of Education in Tallahassee, wrote a very complimentary letter to our teachers and senior administration. Four of the five board members graded Mr Mills’s first year of performance as outstanding and we are rapidly moving toward financial stability. All of these are indicators that Mr Mills and his administrative team, under the direction of our present school board, are accomplishing the cultural change needed in our school district. True, it is just beginning, and true, there have been sacrifices and some hard feelings along the way.
But what about those board members who were our decision makers between 2005-2012 and on whose watch the messes occurred. Are they bad people? Are they guilty of crimes and corruption? No! I know them all and consider every one of them to be my friend. I have watched them give unselfishly and tirelessly of their time, energy, and talents. If they are guilty of anything it is trusting too much in the superintendents they were charged to manage.
Their trust led them to abrogate their responsibility of developing a shared vision of the school district between themselves and their superintendents, then monitoring the administrations to ascertain that the mission and vision were being carried out. Our problems slowly but surely proceeded until the mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance, and some are saying corruption, could no longer be covered up.
Our greatest challenge today is our school board. They often display unacceptable levels of dysfunction. Some of them display disrespect and dislike for each other and they are guilty of failing taxpayers who elected them to their positions and some of them are letting down our very fine superintendent and his administration by demonstrating disruptive, divisive and almost pathological behavior that has the effect of only making more difficult the task of stabilization and cultural change. I think that the changes initiated by members Carpenter and Aranibar, who served in succession as chair, have been a significant contribution to our ongoing turnaround, while also serving to somewhat mitigate this dysfunction. Hence, their value to the board and this community cannot be understated.
We are at the fork of the road. We can choose to continue with behavior in this community that has angry and disruptive factions divisively lining up to totally destroy the progress we have made, only to go back to good old boy days. Or, we can seek initiatives and solutions that will lead to healing of the various factions and forming of collaborative alliances that can identify issues and do constructive planning, finding initiatives and solutions and bring our district back to its mission of training our children and grandchildren to be our productive citizens and leaders of tomorrow. I would submit that the choice is clear. The continuation of our remarkable turnaround can only be accomplished by the reelection of our present incumbents who are up for reelection.
Richard T Conard MD
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