MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board Citizens Advisory Committee met with a state transition team Monday to discuss a broken school board whose lack of leadership abilities contributed to the district's financial mess and its low ranking -- 47th of 65 school districts in the state.
Bill Vogel, leader of the transition team and a member of the advisory group, said the transition team should have a plan for a budget recovery prepared by June 1. Repairing school board functionality could be harder to fix than the $3.5 million deficit, advisory board members acknowledged.
Florida Department of Education and the Florida Association of District Superintendents officials met with the citizens advisory group Monday morning to discuss budget conditions and school district weaknesses before visiting various departments within the district.
The citizens advisory group cited community distrust as one of the school board's greatest weaknesses.
"School board members are elected without qualifications, such as financial insight," said citizens advisory group member Debra Woithe.
They said there is not enough accountability for the school board, and that its dysfunctional leadership style must be revamped.
Other issues identified include early education shortcomings with too many children unprepared for third-grade testing and a "culture of fear" marked by a lack of trust in the ability of administration. Also included were poor budgeting aggravated by insufficient software programs.
The citizens advisory group cited a disconnect between administration and classrooms, and found school district leaders do not face consequences.
"We are ready for change," said Pat Barber, citizens advisory group member and president of the Manatee Education Association.
Vogel said the transition team's goal is to come up with recommendations to support decisions made by Superintendent Rick Mills.
"We need to set forth a vision and measurable goals for everyone to work toward," Vogel said. "The budget needs to be aligned with those goals as we start a process of restoration."
Citizens advisory group members told the transition team they hope the district will someday face more normal challenges involved in managing schools rather than complete dysfunction.
"I would like to see a comprehensive annual financial statement with no findings," said Linda Schaich, citizens advisory group member and community activist who ran for the school board last year against Bob Gause.
The citizens advisory group chairman Richard Conard said in a letter he submitted to the school district that in addition to the recommendations the transition team is working on, he would like to see the organization of a team called Neighbors United for Better Education. Conard described this organization as a non-profit to support the school district and help students achieve.
Conard described the goals as "supporting student initiatives above special interests" and "encouraging transparent debate to arrive at prudent decisions that are financially sound."
He handed out copies of the letter to group members for feedback.
The group briefly discussed the possibility of grants from the federal government and the Florida Department of Education.
"We need to identify all possible funding sources," Woithe said.
Doug Wagner, the director of adult, career and technical education for the district, was noted by the group for his ability to bring in grants for the vocational department. According to Wagner, more than $66 million in grants and other resources have been approved over the past 12 years just for adult, career and technical education, with the money going toward things like computers in schools and portions of building for the new Manatee Technical Institute facility.
"The group brought up these past grants and resources to use as model for bringing in additional resources for the district," Wagner said.
Wagner believes that despite the financial disarray, the district will still be able to receive grants.
"There are always resources available; we have to come up with competitive applications," Wagner said.
Opportunities that the group recognized within the school district to improve student performance include partnerships with entrepreneurs in the community, awareness of Take Stock in Children scholarships and using more volunteers and mentors in the community, which the group called "untapped resources."
The citizens advisory group told the transition team that other concerns include school safety and bringing the student achievement level up from 47th in the state.
"The focus needs to be on students, not on buildings or bureaucracy," said school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter.
During the meeting, Vogel asked the citizen's advisory group to say how they would describe the Manatee County school district to a stranger. Answers included that it is a district with potential, and that there are opportunities available that need to be sought out.
Strengths in the school system that the group identified included the advance placement and international baccalaureate programs school choice and a thorough search that ended with the hiring of Mills as superintendent.
"Students in the system are bright, alert and concerned," Conard said.
The transition team will be meeting with school board members, school administrators and district staff before making its recommendations.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081