Low turnout for first public hearing on Manatee County superintendent search

kbergen@bradenton.comOctober 12, 2012 

MANATEE -- An NAACP education chairwoman. The teachers' union president. A former school board member. A Federation of Manatee County Community Associations representative. And a former educator and superintendent -- from New Jersey.

Five people spoke at the first of three public hearings, an opportunity for the public to voice their opinions about what qualities the Manatee school board should look for in the next superintendent.

The hearing, held in the Braden River High School auditorium, attracted about 15 people and lasted 20 minutes.

But while the public lacked in numbers, those who spoke at the meeting were anything but indirect.

The way that Peggy Delgado, of the Manatee County NAACP, suggested the board look at women and minority applicants drew some chuckles from members.

"SHE should have strong community relations experience," Delgado said. "SHE should have strong financial skills."

Larry Simmons, a former Manatee County school board member and principal, said

the district needed a "1980s Barbara Harvey or Larry Simmons." The reference, he said, was to a time in the district at the height of his and school board member Harvey's careers when the community was hyped up on student achievement that didn't revolve around standardized tests.

"You need someone who can work with teachers and show the community that education is important," Simmons said.

The search for a new superintendent comes in light of former Superintendent Tim McGonegal's resignation on Sept. 10. He had just announced a budget shortfall caused by $8 million of overspending that occurred on his watch.

Since then, the public has called for transparency and improved communication within the district.

Honesty and transparency topped the list of qualities the union wants in the next superintendent, said Manatee Education Association president Pat Barber, who surveyed her organization. The list also included experience managing finance and human resources, as well as an ability to build working relationships.

Paul Valenz, of the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations, echoed a desire for personal management skills and an ability to balance state and district objectives.

But Richard Suprina, a retired New Jersey educator and superintendent who said he witnessed the failures and successes of school systems over a 40-year career, captured the most attention when he read a three-minute speech.

Don't look for a combination of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and Mother Theresa, Suprina warned. It can't be found. Don't hire someone who doesn't understand that teachers have the hardest and most challenging job in the district. And make the final decision unanimous.

"Don't let anyone start without knowing they have the full support of the board," Suprina said.

Suprina retired to Florida and has spent the past nine years in Bradenton, but said he's paid close attention to the district's problems and believes leaders and school board members need to spend more time in the schools.

Several board members -- unfamiliar with Suprina -- reached out after the hearing to thank him for his comments.

Vice Chair Karen Carpenter seemed unsure what to think about the low turnout.

"It's a process," she said. "We've reached out. People can still turn to the website for information and come speak at board meetings."

Suprina wanted to answer, too.

"If you asked me, I would say disappointed. But that's typical." he said, gesturing to the empty auditorium. "That's why it's imperative that you keep reaching out."

Carpenter nodded in agreement. Then sighed: "We do need some more input."

Two more public hearings on the superintendent search will be held at 6 p.m. on Oct. 15 at Manatee High School's Davis Theatre and at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Palmetto School Auditorium.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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