New Manatee schools superintendent will be change agent

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 21, 2013 

MANATEE-- A new data-driven, results-oriented school superintendent has arrived.

Rick Mills, who was sworn in by Judge Thomas Gallen at the school board Wednesday morning, says he will not be pulling any punches as he begins his term.

The former CEO of Minneapolis schools is ready to put Manatee County's schools on track to compete with the top districts in the state.

"We have serious challenges to face and should be further along than we are," Mills said.

This is more than about the budget. Mills said student performance must improve from reading in the early years all the way through to graduation and college prep. Mills plans to use data to define performance measurements and he expects every administrator and teacher to do the same.

"For performance and growth, the Manatee County school district is 47th in the state, but I think we can get up to the top 25 percent with time and resources," Mills said.

He also wants improved software systems and computer capacity so that the schools district can better track everything from the budget to student grades, graduation rates, test performance and teacher effectiveness.

Mills wants administrators and teachers to understand what's driving student and school performance -- or the lack of it -- by getting everyone familiar with reading and understanding data.

He wants that data to drive change in the school district. But his first challenge will be to get the school board to approve paying for powerful software, computer equipment and the training the may need to be able to analyze performance.

Mills is taking the helm after Tim McGonegal resigned in September after informing the school board that the district was facing a $3.4 million deficit because it didn't include some teacher salaries, book purchases and other costs in its budget. The district's budgeting software also did not work properly, failing at simple processes like addition and subtraction.

After spending most of Tuesday -- the day before he was sworn in -- analyzing the budget, Mills will brief the school board within the week about what needs to be immediately addressed.

But budgeting hasn't been the district's only issue with computer software. The transition from an online gradebook tool, Pinnacle, to the new Focus tool two years ago was frustrating to teachers, took a long time and crashed during peak use. Some teachers gave up trying to enter grades at certain times and on certain days.

Given the ineffective software, and with no regular data analysis, Mills said it is nearly impossible to get to the root of problems.

Mills wants teachers to input data, such as attendance, test scores and other performance measures, on a regular basis, preferably every two weeks as he did in Minnesota. With a continuously updated database, teachers will be able to flag a list of at-risk students and implement intervention strategies.

In order to improve the dropout and graduation rates, the data has to be up to date, he said. Improving the software program used by teachers, which is currently not up to par, training people to use it and making sure the portal is large enough for the district will cost money, just as the school district and its board have begun austerity measures.

However, Mills believes that mandating the use of a "data dashboard," as he calls it, will help across the board.

"Following data is great in any school district. It is critical to delivering effective instruction, assessing shortfalls around students and reaching state benchmarks," Mills said. "We need a data dashboard to measure effectiveness and to eliminate any programs that are not producing outcomes."

Mills added that if updated regularly, the data would be an active warehouse that can be accessed by any teacher at any school. Mills also plans to form a transition team to review plans, organize structure, discuss financial needs and establish communication. He said he wants to create a positive work environment that will invite change and aid in the development of the formal economic recovery plan.

The transition team will be led by Bill Vogel, the former superintendent of Seminole County and a member of the citizens advisory committee. Vogel has reached out to the Department of Education and was able to get approval for funding for the team. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents will identify 11 team members from around Florida to come to Manatee County to conduct an analysis of the district next month. Mills also wants the citizens advisory group to remain engaged to provide feedback and input.

He described his plan to transform the district as collaborative and inclusive.

"I want to hear from the community and stakeholders," Mills said.

Part of his plan for his first few days is to introduce himself to staff and leadership and to talk about his leadership style and his vision.

"I believe I am a humble leader, but I also have a relentless pursuit for excellence," Mills said.

Mills described his leadership style as a combination of art and science.

"The art is figuring out how to build a motivated team and invest in competency. It is also about being focused together," Mills said. "The science is putting structures in place, the monitoring and execution of plans, and seeing outcome and results."

Mills recognizes that it is important for employees to feel valued, said Sheila Sterling, the attendance coordinator at the Farragut Career Academy, who worked with Mills in Chicago.

"He had a way of thinking outside the box to make things happen. He is the type of man that recognizes talent and takes a group of people and makes a team," Sterling said. "People that don't know him will think he is not warm and fuzzy; he is just about taking care of business to help move student achievement."

While serving as superintendent, Mills hopes to dispel any notions that he is a rigid leader, pointing out that while he is former military, he has been working in education for the past 13 years.

"You think that Walmart doesn't have relentless pursuit?" Mills said with a slight smile. "I am a fair leader, and I set high expectations; I hold people accountable. Too often people confuse accountability with rigidness. Shouldn't we all be accountable?"

Citizens advisory group member Alejandro Chavez said that he finds Mills to be personable.

"He will be tough, but he is also approachable," Chavez said. "He is not super directive, and he is flexible enough to know how to lead without being too rigid."

Chavez also said that the road ahead will not be easy.

"We should all wish him luck, he will need it now that the honeymoon is over and his real life here is starting."

Mills said he is excited about building relationships with the school board members and with the community.

He has laid out an agenda for a school board retreat April 20 for leadership training, Mills also hopes to "blur the lines" of management, creating a comfortable relationship with senior staff. He said he had a similar retreat in Minnesota that was successful.

"It goes back to how we have to come together to share the same values and expectations. It is necessary to share deep conversations around what we expect in a working relationship and what we expect for students," Mills said.

School board Vice Chair Julia Aranibar said that Mills is an effective communicator who will address the real problems of the district.

"We need to have one district with one vision, and Mills is interested in unity," Aranibar said. "We owe the community honesty and transparency. We did not get to where we are by closely looking at the facts and data."

Mills will be meeting with the school district CFO Michael Boyer this week on the budget and how the district can move forward as it plans for next year and will share his insights with the school board Monday.

After that, he plans to visit schools to meet with students, teachers and parents.

"Seeing and meeting school officials makes students feel more involved in decision making," said Braden River High senior Rebekah Johns. Mills has high expectations for local students.

"I believe they will get the quality education that will allow them to accomplish their hopes and dreams and that they will come to school everyday motivated and challenged," Mills said.

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