MANATEE -- The reality of the School District of Manatee's financial crisis struck home for thousands of employees and parents of students at 6 p.m. Wednesday when Superintendent Rick Mills left an automated phone message announcing layoffs with no specific timeline for the cuts or explanation for why the message went out when it did.
In March, the school board eliminated 188 full-time positions, more than half teachers. Since then a transition team brought in to help Mills reorganize the district in his first 100 days also recommended cuts by readjusting student-to-teacher classroom ratios that exceeded state requirements this year.
The layoffs were no surprise, but Mills' message, sent to parents and district staff, did raise anxiety levels as many wait to hear their fates.
"Because of a lack of fiscal discipline and controls, our school district has hired too many employees over the last several years," Mills said in his telephone message. "This overstaffing has cost the school district millions of dollars a year and placed an unsustainable strain on the financial health of our school system. Therefore we must realign the staffing needs of our school district to be both fiscally sound, and strategically appropriate."
Several principals and staff told the Herald Thursday that they believed they were prohibited from talking to the media about the cuts, and with their jobs on the line, they are heeding that. Mills noted Friday, however, that his position was clarified after a memo was recently "inadvertently sent to principals."
The original email, sent the morning of May 6 by Mills' assistant, stated: "As the district moves forward with one voice, note that there will only be four people authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the district."
A clarifying email sent about eight hours later stated: "As a principal you are certainly allowed to speak to the media on events pertaining to your school."
Mills said Friday that he wants an open environment and to rebuild trust in the district. Asked if principals could discuss budget issues and staff cuts, he responded:
"Principals absolutely can discuss matters and events that pertain to their schools," Mills said. "When it pertains to district matters, that's when it should be referred to senior staff."
News of the voice mail message was all over school employee Facebook accounts since late Wednesday night, many of them saying they are taking the fall for the district's inability to balance a budget.
School board member Dave "Watch Dog" Miner said the straightforward phone message gave the proper message that the financial crisis is not "a matter of someone putting a few million in a suitcase on their way home."
"This was absolutely due to incorrect staffing and, as a result, we spent millions of dollars more than what we should have over the years," Miner said.
Karen Carpenter, school board chairwoman, also defended Mills' decision to send out the message.
"He is a very fair and even-handed guy who is not making any major decisions without considering all the facts," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Mills has been meeting constantly with school principals, asking them to evaluate employees they want to keep and those they would be willing to let go in this crisis.
Some principals have already submitted their lists to the district and begun informing employees they will be let go, while other principals have chosen not to share their lists until the district signs off on them. More than 100 employees reportedly have already been told they won't work for the district next year.
The district has until May 31 to let people know whether their contracts will be renewed.
"This is a work in progress," Carpenter said. "It's taking a lot of discussion, involving a lot of numbers. It is not a decision to be made lightly."
School board member Bob Gause said Mills doesn't know how widespread the cuts will be or what specific departments or positions will be cut because principals are still evaluating employees, especially teachers.
"We have great people and I would like to believe the school administration knows who they are," Gause said. "The silver lining is that the students will get the very best of those who are available."
The district released the following statement Thursday afternoon about the coming layoffs:
"At this time details on staff realignment and other fiscal organizational matters are still being worked on by district staff including our new Deputy Superintendents Dr. Diana Greene and Don Hall, as well as Superintendent Mills and the Transition Team of educational experts from across Florida. We expect to be able to release specific staffing information early next week."
In addition, the "transition team's economic recovery plan will be released on June 3."