Top 10 issues earning commentaries in 2012: School turmoil atop our list

December 30, 2012 

Our top 10 comment-worthy events over the past year include both good and bad news from the Manatee County school board and district; the August primary and November general election, and the Piney Point environmental mess. Positive economic developments abounded, too, with the christening of Riverwalk, the boom in our sports tourism industry and the remarkable gifts for the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

1. School district in crisis

One dire development after another in the Manatee County school system dominated our commentary all year long. Led by a what we described as a dysfunctional and combative school board for most of the year, the panel clashed repeatedly over spending priorities before approving a budget in February on a 3-2 vote. Then the board rescinded a retroactive pay cut on teachers in March in an executive session vote that clashed with Florida's open government laws.

Public distrust in the board and district kept mounting until boiling over when the district stumbled into a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall that is still coming to light in the wake of Superintendent Tim McGonegal's sudden resignation in September. We then urged greater transparency and accountability in the budget process, and district appears on that course.

We cited interim Superintendent David Gayler for working diligently to restore public confidence as a forensic audit of the district budget proceeds into explaining this financial disaster.

2. Student achievement up

On the flip side, the district instituted an aggressive strategy to improve student performance with the elevation of Bob Gagnon to assistant superintendent for curriculum. The goal: boost Manatee's standing among the state's 67 districts from 47th into the top 25 within five years.

Manatee's graduation rate has already soared to be among the best in just one year, jumping from 44th to 21st. Also this month, the district learned three of seven high schools earned A grades from the state, three scored B's and only one got a C -- another solid mark of improvement.

The district also continues to be a national leader in career academies and technical training programs.

We applauded the district for all these impressive changes and accomplishments.

3. Riverwalk's great debut

With a public visioning process that led to the birth of Realize Bradenton several years ago and a cultural master plan for the city, the now non-profit organization partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to complete one of the cornerstones of economic revitalization this year: the sparkling Riverwalk along the Manatee River.

The initial events along this eclectic park have already established this as the place to be, with the Bradenton Blues Festival, ArtSlam and Taste of Manatee all attracting huge crowds. We've been bullish on Riverwalk and Realize Bradenton since the beginnings of both.

4. Voter suppression

Florida adopted new election regulations that were quickly labeled a "voter suppression law" to its Republican defenders' great resentment. Yet just recently, former Republican leaders and GOP consultants came clean and admitted the onerous law was indeed designed to thwart voters with Democratic tendencies, including minorities, college students and others. The Palm Beach Post exposed this political skulduggery, which we applauded in a follow-up editorial to all our columns blistering Florida for this terrible law.

Even Gov. Rick Scott, once a staunch proponent of the discredited law, is on board for more convenient voting after Florida became a national joke over November's general election nightmares.

5. Piney Point, again

This piece of land by Port Manatee has such a checkered past of environmental disaster, it must be jinxed. The latest grim tale began with the May 2011 spill of 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor. HRK Holdings LLC was storing dredge material from a port berth expansion at Piney Point in old gypsum stacks but a rip in the storage liner allowed the water to escape.

A Herald investigation over the past year uncovered startling information that the leak was "predictable and preventable," as we opined. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection failed to protect the environment and failed to perform due diligence on HRK, now in bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the mess at Piney Point remains.

6. SCF controversy

The political maneuverings by some trustees of State College of Florida finally forced the resignation of college President Lars Hafner in November.

Hafner's highly questionable financial dealings came under intense scrutiny from a mostly new board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and assigned the task of strict accountability. Hafner had few allies on the board of trustees, though faculty and students rallied around him. Now trustees are searching for a new president.

7. Tourism upswing

Sports tourism is booming here, as we extolled several times. Lakewood Ranch's Premier Sports Campus and Bradenton's IMG Academies are expanding their facilities big-time and attracting tens of thousands of competitors and visitors. The World Aquatic Center at Nathan Benderson Park and Manatee County's Fort Hamer rowing center are major attractions, too. McKechnie Field is undergoing major upgrades. The nonprofit Manatee Sports Commission debuted this year to further promote sports tourism.

The Bradenton Area Convention Center received an extensive makeover. Downtown's historic Manatee River Hotel, aka the Pink Palace, is currently covered with scaffolding for its transformation into a Hampton Inn & Suites beginning next month.

Then there's Riverwalk.

8. Theater boost

Showing exceptional generosity, the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton first donated $250,000 toward construction of the Manatee Performing Arts Center and then pledged an additional $1.1 million. The club will sell Kiwanis Hall on 14th Street West to finance the investment, and members will hold their meetings inside the new arts center.

The Manatee Community Foundation and an anonymous donor combined to provide $1.5 million to the project, too. The years-long effort to build a new state-of-the-art home for the Manatee Players is nearing the finish line. The cultural center holds great promise for downtown's resurgence, and all the donors earned our kudos.

9. Higher education

Lawmakers again proved beholden to special interests and powerful players by approving the creation of a new state university as an expensive and unjustifiable favor to outgoing Sen. JD Alexander, who bullied his way to success. Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland will now drain away resources from the other 11 public universities, which already suffered from $300 million in cuts this year.

Tallahassee talks a good game about the value of higher education to the state's economy and job growth but shows a weak commitment, as we opined.

10. Elections

The November balloting in Manatee County went true to form as Republican candidates dominated in the partisan contests.

But the biggest surprise came in the August GOP primary when Betsy Benac upset longtime Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash. With a phantom write-in candidate on the ballot in November, only registered Republicans could vote -- and that stymied a lot of McClash supporters. We expected a McClash win.

The only other surprise came out on Holmes Beach where all three incumbents lost to political novices advocating tighter growth controls: new Mayor Carmel Monti and City Commissioners Judy Titsworth and Marvin Grossman. We endorsed all three winners as change to the status quo.

Veteran school board candidate Dave "Watchdog" Miner nearly pulled off a primary win over three opponents, barely missing the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff. But he did win that. We missed endorsing Miner in the primary but came around for the general election in light of September's terrible financial revelations. With his deep knowledge of the district, he's a valuable addition to the board.

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