Manatee School Board told it must change communication to move district forward

kbergen@bradenton.comNovember 6, 2012 

MANATEE -- They've met like this many times before. Five school board members. A superintendent. A goal to establish effective communication for an ever-changing board.

There is laughter and polite chatter on this Monday morning as the Manatee County school board begins another training session with Florida School Boards Association Director of Board Development Andrea Messina. This time, interim superintendent David Gayler joins them.

There is the expected, a moment for board members to declare why they chose to become involved in the school board.

There is an acknowledgement of reality. This board knows what people call them.

"Dysfunctional," Julie Aranibar says.

There is a warning, an indication that disaster is not over.

"You had an aneurysm back in September," Gayler says. "What I found out is that you are still bleeding."

This September, school administrators revealed they overspent by $11.3 million. No one budgeted for millions in teachers' salaries in a tentative budget that board mem

bers approved.

But even since that disaster, unbudgeted items still come across his desk every day, Gayler says. And like a puzzle, a picture is coming together.

The responsibilities of those who left the district through a year of budget cuts weren't replaced. These holes aren't limited to one department and they touch every division. It will take awhile to understand, Gayler says. It will take awhile to fix.

"You know this is going to be huge, guys," Gayler says, after a breath. "I don't need to tell you that. Our response to this will be critical. Our response moving forward will be critical."

There is a question. The question today, like always, is why. Why has it come this far?

Maybe it's the group's individual style of managing conflict. When they take a test, four board members receive scores labeling them "compromisers," a style of conflict management stuck between cooperation and assertiveness.

"Compromising is middle ground -- this is where you guys are mostly sitting," Messina says. "You guys have struggled to be a team, truly. This group has to figure out how to handle conflict in a positive way."

Maybe it's the undercurrents of the issues that have divided its members. Some board members say they have felt out-of-the loop, given information at the last minute.

"I have felt as a person or board member that I have had less value." Aranibar explains to Gayler and Gause in a group session. "I can't be anything but hopeful, but I am very disappointed in where we ended up." Her voice is quiet. It is tired.

At the end, there is a creed, a promise to be honest, to hold each other accountable, to treat each other with civility. There are goals. A desire to seek out information that can help them figure out how to improve academic performance. A plan to continue to try to mend their own broken ways of communication. A need for more specific definitions for the roles of chairman and vice-chairman on the board.

But if this is the board talking the talk, then Gayler knows that the board must soon walk the walk.

"Now that we've talked about (goals)," Gayler said, "we really need to follow through."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941.745.7081.

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