Manatee County school district takes tough, necessary steps for financial recovery

June 5, 2013 

Even Manatee County schools Superintendent Rick Mills expressed surprise at the depths to which the district had sunk during a years-long financial crisis: "It is much more dire than anticipated. If we don't take extreme measures, we will be subject to state takeover."

The loss of local control would be devastating.

One of the most stunning statistics in the transition team's study of the district's profoundly widespread dysfunction is the $38 million budget shortfall dating back to 2007 -- far higher than thought since the fiscal mismanagement first came to light September and then worsened within months.

The district will end this fiscal year in debt again, but administrators have launched a plan to save $21.9 million and build a strong $10.3 million fund balance in the coming year -- a hopeful sign of a quick financial turnaround.

Systemic problems will be tougher to solve. The team of outside education experts assembled by the Florida Association of Area District Superintendents sliced and diced the district in its report, released at Monday's press conference at which Mills uttered his dire warning.

The team's sweeping top-to-bottom recommendations to repair this broken district set the stage for a recovery. Those potential remedies mirror Mills' reorganization strategy, which the school board approved Monday night.

Next Tuesday, the superintendent will unveil his vision on establishing a quality education. On Monday, transition teams members return to Bradenton to answer the public's questions.

Their report does not dwell on assigning blame but focuses on a strong future course of action, stating:

"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."

This study should put the past to rest and unite the community in moving forward.

Reorganization

Now with board approval, the superintendent will assemble a new leadership team with expertise and skills in the positions vital to achieving accountability and strategic alignment throughout the district. Mills' intent is also to increase focus, operational efficiency and academic improvement.

Detailed job descriptions for the seven new positions are posted on the district's website. Three existing leadership posts underwent changes, too, with no budget impact.

While any new jobs come as a surprise, the administration did eliminate 96 district staff positions as part of the financial recovery plan -- for a total savings of $3.7 million.

"We need the right folks in the rights seats of the bus with the right skills to drive this district forward," Mills stated at Monday's board meeting.

This reorganization, recommended by the transition, should provide the leadership and drive missing from the previous administration.

Teachers

The loss of 182 teaching positions is the most painful aspect of this financial recovery process, though necessary to contain costs. Mills reasserted that the district will still meet the class-size standards set under Florida's constitution.

The previous leadership had hired too many teachers, and the district had too many classes well under the cap, inefficiencies that had to be corrected.

He has set aside money to hire additional teachers in the fall should enrollment overfill classrooms.

The district will face state scrutiny as a monitoring team will be visiting three times next fall to ensure progress on all fronts -- with one visit coming after the October enrollment count and classroom size numbers. Administrators will be on a short leash.

School board

The transition team leveled some tough criticism on the board, in particular citing "a relatively low level of mutual trust" among members.

The report also warned that the district could encounter accreditation problems if the board fails to participate in a formal training program, something the superintendent is already pursuing with "core belief training."

In addition, an opportunity for state master board training comes up in August, an opportunity that shouldn't be lost.

One of the report's recommendations to the board alludes to a broader challenge. "For the district to return to a position of financial stability, improve student performance and regain the public trust, the Board and Superintendent must join together as the district leadership team."

A vital component

The entire district and community, too, must join that unity of purpose. With the guidance of the education experts on the transition team, the superintendent has developed a strategic plan that includes some drastic but necessary measures.

Community support is essential for success.

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