MANATEE -- Superintendent of schools Rick Mills donned an apron and served soup and salad to a crowded banquet room Wednesday at the Ranch Grill in Lakewood Ranch.
No, Mills hasn't given up on his superintendent duties -- as challenging as they have turned out to be -- to take up a chef's career. Instead he was serving lunch to community members as they discussed the district: Critiques included areas of the school district that need major improvement, including a high number of under-capacity schools, achievement gaps and the need for better planning.
Before he went to lunch, Mills told staff at Nolan Middle School that the budget situation is darker than he thought, and it will only get worse before it gets better.
"Great organizations get down to the brutal facts," Mills said at the luncheon.
To bulk up the district's weak reserves, Mills told his constituents he is seriously considering shutting down and selling properties -- including the district's human resources building and some of its vehicles -- to pay costs. Before deciding whether that also means closing schools with empty desks, Mills said he wants to design a five-year plan to address low enrollment in certain schools.
School board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar said the school district should first examine why some schools are crowded while some schools are under capacity.
"We need to capture the
data of why parents are choosing to send their students to one school over another," Aranibar said.
Aranibar said that there needs to be a model for evaluating the best school fit for a student based on needs, not special initiatives a school may offer, such as iPads.
"We need to ask what these schools do not have that parents are willing to drive further for," Aranibar said.
According to the school district's most recent operational efficiency report, 18 elementary schools and five middle and high schools are operating under-capacity. Rogers Garden is at 31 percent capacity, while Manatee Elementary and Harllee Middle are at 52 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
"We need to talk about this," Mills said.
Community members were also concerned about the achievement gap and the costs of remedial classes for those behind in basics such as math and reading.
The cost of remedial learning is $8 million a year. While teaching positions will be cut as the district adjusts its student to teacher ratios, Mills said he wants to look at leveraging teachers for leadership roles within schools to monitor the development of students who are performing below grade level.
"Staff become even more passionate when they know what they are accountable for and that they are supported," Mills said.
While teachers are hardly at-ease with jobs on the line, Mills said they are a valuable resource for monitoring student achievement.
Mills also said he wants to be more proactive in using federal grant money.
"This district has had a lack of discipline and has been neglected for years," Mills said.
Mills is proposing after- school programs focused on reading, although he is not sure at this point when those would be launched.
Mills said the biggest call for action is in the classroom.
He confirmed he is moving forward with an academic plan in which each school will write its own five-year strategic plan to be included as part of the budget plans and school improvement plans.
Mills said he will meet with school staff and administration for feedback and is hoping to complete the plan before the end of the year.
"We need to work on prioritizing and charting a course instead of reacting to new initiatives," Mills said. "We need to get out of the business of continually asking 'what are we going to do this month?'"
Some people in attendance offered praise for Mills and the district.
Bridget Mendel, a teacher who recently moved from the Chicago school district, said she is impressed with the industry certifications and career readiness programs available to her high school-aged son through the Manatee Technical Institute.
"I was blown away by the opportunities here," Mendel said.
However, Mills identified technology as another area in which the district needs to improve.
"We need to step forward into 21st-century learning," Mills said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081