Mills: Manatee County schools subject to state takeover

eearl@bradenton.comJune 4, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County school district is in a "crisis" and operating on "ill-conceived" practices that it can no longer afford, according to the Florida Association of Area District Superintendents.

Superintendent of Schools Rick Mills said he was initially surprised at the extent of the findings as he presented the study from the transition team Monday morning.

"It is much more dire than anticipated," Mills said. "If we don't take extreme measures, we will be subject to state takeover."

The transition team described a broken district that must transform itself from top to bottom.

"In order for the critical conversations, decisions and actions necessary to implement the financial recovery plan to take place, basic structure, thinking, attitudes and culture must change," the transition team reported.

The state transition team led by Bill Vogel, former superintendent of Seminole County, assessed the ailing Manatee County school district the week of April 22.

The primary issues the transition team identified as cause for a $38 million shortfall include hiring staff without paying attention to the budget, lack of understanding and communication of district finances and resistance to change.

The team reported the district has a culture of individual decision-making instead of collaboration. The report also said the district has "lost sight of its goal to prepare students."

Vogel said the district's strategic plan lacks specific goals and benchmarks.

"The district is not working together toward one common goal," Vogel said. "There is a lack of organizational and individual accountability for tasks in district."

Another district weakness the transition team reported was school members are not trained.

"There is a lack of decisiveness, and people are concerned," he said.

Vogel said it is important for school boards to participate in state master board training, and there is an opportunity coming up in August.

"These master board training sessions develop common thinking and understanding," Vogel said. "They lead to new strategic plans and establish a vision for district."

Vogel said the most important recommendations are to hold district individuals and the school board accountable and to continuously monitor progress.

"Only when you have that kind of organization does innovation result," Vogel said. "People in schools need to feel free, not be looking over their shoulder worrying about keeping their job."

The citizens advisory group, which worked with the transition team during the assessment, reported noticing a culture of fear and a perception among employees of intimidation within the school district.

Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said district leaders will use the transition team's report as a blueprint for fixing the district's problems.

"We have to ensure we have a $10.3 million fund balance to meet the state's mandate, cover any negative fund balance and reserve money to hire teachers we may need after the 10-day count," Hall said.

Mills said he will share his "clear vision" of how to move the school district forward next week.

To begin with, Mills is setting up "core belief training" for school board members.

Mills said his reorganization plan, including the addition of seven new positions and changes in title job description and pay for several other leadership roles, is based on the transition team's recommendations.

The report called for the addition of a director of communications and family engagement, a director of budget and an executive director of human resources.

Hall said certain school functions, particularly in human resources, do not have the right leadership,

"They do not have the depth of talent or structure to move the district forward," Hall said. The job descriptions "are old, and in many cases they just don't work."

The report said some progress has been made in the district, but the culture of overspending continues.

Part of the report reads:

"Teachers and staff have borne the brunt of the funding crisis to date by having their pay and benefits cut. The resulting low morale may be impacting student achievement."

Yet, according to the transition team report, the district's people, including teachers, staff and the community, are one of its greatest strengths.

"Through all of the financial challenges, commitment to changing the district was evident in teachers and leaders in the community," Vogel said.

In recent weeks the rising dissatisfaction within the school district has become evident to the community.

Teachers and principals have been frustrated over the school's decision to take their internal funds -- donations from parents and supporters -- to apply toward the district deficit.

At Rowlett Elementary the anger and disappointment led to an effort to turn the elementary school into an independent charter school.

At King Middle School, the principal sent out a letter asking parents for donations "to get us through the very end of this year and the beginning of next year."

The transition team will be in Manatee County to take questions June 10 about their findings and recommendations. Mills will unveil his plan to move the district forward the following day.

"We need to focus collectively as a county and community," Mills said. "I'm excited about the future."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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