Manatee's new school superintendent brings confidence

April 21, 2013 

0213_BRLO_superintendent_Mills

Rick Mills is a candidate for Manatee County Schools Superintendent. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills expresses great confidence about the future of the district. Though on the job only a month, he's already taken a variety of aggressive steps to address the district's many challenges.

His list of priorities covers the waterfront, as he explained in a wide-ranging discussion with the Herald Editorial Board last week. By his forthright responses to tough questions, he leaves the strong impression that he will succeed in turning the district around.

He'll have some critical help, too. Today, April 21, a band of education experts from around Florida arrive here to serve as a transition team. The 13 veteran leaders will evaluate district difficulties with financial planning and budgeting software; staffing and human resources; teaching and learning; and other issues. This is a blessing that will provide Mills with outside recommendations from educators with deep experience.

The most pressing issue is overcoming the budget deficit, as this community is well aware. The immediate need is placing $6.3 million into a savings account to meet the state mandate of a minimum 2.2 percent reserve fund to cover emergencies. That must be accomplished by the end of the budget year, June 30, and the district must also close out the entire 2012-2013 budget by then.

Of course, Mills and his team have been tackling budget issues since day one. The superintendent's action plan includes a point person and support team responsible for solving each problem found in the recent audit.

Plus, the transition team will play a key role in developing an economic recovery plan.

Other major issues

School safety: Mills opposes arming teachers and school staff, as a current measure in the Legislature proposes. He favors other methods to increase security, including hardening schools through architectural modifications.

Public trust: Stakeholders will be deeply involved in the district, a welcome change for a community long clamoring for more involvement amid unease with past district priorities.

Mills plans to reinstate a sales tax accountability committee, and on Monday the citizens advisory group will meet with the transition team.

Transparency: This, too, will help restore public confidence in district matters. Mills, a data-driven leader who believes in open government, is developing monthly statistical snapshots of the district's performance and those dashboards will be posted on the district website.

These metrics will primarily serve as a meaningful way to ascertain what works and what doesn't. Inadequate programs will be dropped. "We will not continue to fund failure or low performance," Mills stated.

District employees: The superintendent intends to reinvest in employees once budget issues are settled. This is one way to address the low morale that has distressed the district for a long time.

Mills is also reorganizing his leadership team. He's sent letters to all employees explaining the move, another nod to keeping stakeholders in the loop.

Education: Mills plans to develop a comprehensive plan that provides the best opportunities for a quality education at all schools. The strategy will focus on both college and career readiness, the latter an acknowledgment that not all students plan postsecondary educations.

The district will track freshmen to ensure they don't fall behind in this pivotal year of future high school success and follow them as sophomores, too, to propel them toward graduation. Individual plans will be written for every student.

In a nutshell, Superintendent Mills says he intends to keep a sharp focus on the big picture and empower district employees to implement his policies, holding them accountable for success. He's looking toward the future, and not letting the past influence his thinking.

According to one highly regarded leadership and management program, Dale Carnegie Training, "When a supervisor has effective communication skills and can articulate staff responsibilities and for a team oriented environment, the productivity of that company increases exponentially."

That sounds like the playbook Superintendent Rick Mills is putting in place. Now he has to prove to the community he can achieve all these goals.

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