Manatee County school district, board endure more tough days

April 28, 2013 

Southeast High School student Mackenzie Yaryura, left, interviews Superintendent Rick Mills, right, and school board member Karen Carpenter.PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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With the Manatee County school board and administration dealing with a dizzying array of difficulties and issues, the continuing onslaught boggles the mind.

On top of the immediate urgency surrounding the budget crisis and a state transition team in town for a sweeping review of the district, other concerns arose.

Just in the past 10 days, all of this occurred:

Worst news of week

Superintendent Rick Mills revealed Thursday that the district will only have a meager $100,000 left when the fiscal year ends in two months. That's far, far short of the $6.7 million needed to meet the state mandate of at least a 2.2 percent fund balance. That makes three consecutive years the district has failed the reserve requirement. Part of the problems is that more than $4 million in attrition savings did not materialize as expected.

In a year full of gloom and doom, this is another discouraging development.

Another element came to light. An email from finance manager Sheina Runions stated some district personnel became "quite creative in trying to hide budgets and move money to unaffected areas" once told of budget cuts last month.

Though the amounts of money are likely small, such acts during a budget crisis undermine district goals. This highlights the need for a sea change in the district's culture -- one that emphasizes team-building.

Board gets poor evaluation

The school board did not exactly get a good grade out of Monday morning's meeting of its citizens advisory group and the transition team. The board was described as broken and dysfunctional with deficient leadership skills that contributed to the budget deficit and poor state ranking in student achievement.

The toughest assessment, though, came with the observation that fixing the board's functionality could be a tougher challenge than repairing the budget.

That brutal assessment gives cause for alarm -- and longing for the day when the board and district are only tackling mundane issues unworthy of public uproar. Until that day, the board must come to grips with the public perception of its leadership.

A lack of foresight

But at Monday night's board meeting, the panel expressed uncertainty about how to proceed with replacing its retiring attorney, who departs in June.

The options are an in-house legal department, an outside contracted attorney and several other options, but a decision has been stalled due to a complicated procedure the board doesn't understand.

That does not engender public confidence -- especially considering the issue did not suddenly arise. Board attorney John Bowen announced his retirement in June 2012, and the board has discussed his replacement numerous times since.

Almost a year later, and the board remains mired in a dilemma they clearly saw coming.

Super staff selections

Mills assembled key parts of his senior management team by selecting Diana Green as deputy superintendent of instructional services, responsible for academic programs, student achievement, complaint investigations and some data analysis; and Don Hall as deputy superintendent of operations, responsible for finance, payroll, human resources, food services and more. A few days after announcing his recommendations, the board approved them Monday.

Both appointments appear solid. Green was a highly regarded candidate for superintendent, earning two of five board votes. Hall earned renown as one of the very top chief information officers among the nation's school districts. Welcome to Bradenton.

Cutting district surplus

Soon after Mills took office, he noticed the district headquarters parking lot lined with staff vehicles. Curious, he asked for the exact number of cars in the district's fleet. The number astounds: 222, excessive, for sure.

With a maintenance cost of around $2,700 annually per vehicle, that bill is too high. Expect a batch of cars to be priced to move soon.

Mills also took aim at surplus property, particularly the old Checkers restaurant site at First Street and Manatee Avenue. This highly visible and valuable 1.36-acre site and the adjacent Owens Annex, which currently houses the district's human resources department, should fetch a good price. Human resources will move into underutilized district office space.

Another adjacent property, the Parent Information Center; the long vacant Instructional Materials Center, on 7.5 acres in the first block of 26th Avenue West, and several other properties are also targeted.

It's about time the district forged ahead on shedding surplus. Underperforming, half-full schools should also come under a microscope, as has been discussed on and off for a long time with another mention last week.

Mental health screening

Finally, we're encouraged that Mills and Mary Ruiz, president and chief executive of Manatee Glens, are talking about implementing a mental health screening program in district schools to identify students who might need help. That was the focus of the CEO Roundtable on April 19.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre and the documented mental health issues of gunman Adam Lanza, school screening programs are on the nation's radar.

While chief executive officer of Minneapolis schools, Mills helped launch a mental health program there through community partnerships and supports a similar effort here. That will be a great benefit to students, parents and teachers -- as well as for school safety.

Coming up

All in all, this has been a demanding 10 days for the school board and district. Now, we await the report from state transition team on strategies for fixing the district's broad range of problems.

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