To next Manatee County school superintendent, recast district's culture

February 1, 2013 

Next week, the top candidates for superintendent of the Manatee County school district will tour schools and undergo vigorous "round robin" interviews with school board members, education stakeholders and other interested parties.

They will hear questions from a community agonizing over the financial mismanagement and professional incompetence of two key former administrators that led to a multimillion dollar budget deficit.

This community's concerns are grave indeed, and the next superintendent must have the skill set, character and strength to bring this district back from disaster. And the challenges go beyond the findings of the forensic audit report of the financial blunders.

Public anger over the unacceptable corporate culture within the administration bubbled over again in mid-January when the school board heard sharp complaints about nepotism and worse.

These are not new charges either as district critics have been railing about poor communications, the lack of transparency and difficult access to public records for years.

Interim Superintendent David Gayler's focus is on the future, not the past, and repairing the broken parts of the district's operations so the next superintendent assumes leadership of a stronger organization. We certainly want him to succeed.

But we must learn the lessons of the past to build a better future, and the district needs dramatic changes in its culture. The district can no longer ask citizens to join policy-proposing committees and then ignore or "water down" recommendations before sending them on to the board, as former audit panel chair Jim Toomey related at that mid-January board workshop.

"When things get bounced to management, they tend to get watered down, sent back here and bounced back to management -- the policies never seem to get implemented," Toomey told the panel. "Please look at what the audit committee actually recommends the first time around."

Such a simple request. Administrators should not be blocking citizen reports from board members -- or any district document, for that matter, as has been the case.

The forensic audit report of district spending found several reasons behind the $3.4 million deficit yet only blamed former assistant superintendent and finance chief Jim Drake and ex-superintendent Tim McGonegal.

But it stretches the imagination to believe other district personnel were not at least partially aware of the damage. Nobody, though, sounded the alarm.

Did employees remain quiet out of fear for their jobs? That culture cannot be tolerated. Supervisors who cultivate such apprehension should be disciplined and even removed under grievous circumstances. Staff should be empowered to point out potential problems to prevent situations from spiraling out of control.

Along those same lines, open the lines of communication -- and doors, too. Put a premium on transparency. Insist that vital information be given to the board and public in a timely manner, not held secret or delivered at the last second as has happened in the past.

Other cultural changes we'd like to see:

n Institute a nepotism policy. Promotions must be based on qualifications, not office politics, friendships and other nonprofessional factors.

n Put much greater emphasis on professional conduct and ethics. And review the district's Office of Professional Standards.

n Ensure board directives are carried out. Board chair Karen Carpenter pointed to one example at the workshop. In June 2012, the panel agreed to a local preference policy on contracts for services and goods over the objections of the district's purchasing department, which outlined double the number of "cons" than "pros" with such a policy. The district's legal team failed to follow through and create a policy, an unacceptable outcome. The board is responsible for policy-making, not administrators.

The superintendent finalists will be in our community Feb. 11-12. The public will have the opportunity to meet the candidates at a reception from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. on Feb. 11 at district headquarters.

The Citizens Advisory Group found consensus on its top five candidates, a good indication all are well qualified -- as is school board acceptance of those picks on Thursday. The panel also added another name.

We hope the board and the community also come to a consensus on this critical appointment -- and the new superintendent is up to this tremendous challenge.

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