MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District is closing out one of its most tumultuous years as the 2012-13 school year ends.
"The last few years have been difficult," said school board vice chair Julie Aranibar. "It took everything we went through to get where we are today. In 75 days, we have come pretty far."
That 75 days measures one of the district's most significant changes this year: the arrival of Superintendent of Schools Rick Mills, hired to turn around a broken school district with a $38 million budget shortfall and student performance that ranked 47th in the state.
"The school district has faced a challenging year," said Bill Vogel, who served on the Citizens Advisory Group and chaired Mills' transition team. "When you have a superintendent resign and budget shortfalls are identified, it certainly raises concerns in the community over how funds were managed. It created turbulence."
The turmoil boiled over in September when then-Superintendent Tim McGonegal resigned three days after the district revealed a $3.4 million deficit in their 2012-13 budget. McGonegal appointed then-assistant superintendent of schools Bob Gagnon to serve as interim. The school board soon after chose Dave Gayler to serve as interim.
But the district was left without a permanent leader, without any handle on budget controls and uncertainty about the future.
Much blame was tossed around for the deficit, which amounted to a $38 million shortfall. Most of the blame landed on Jim Drake, the former assistant superintendent who retired in early 2012.
On Feb. 1, the district released a 16,000-page forensic audit report, containing interviews with district employees and an investigation into the district's financial department. The report confirmed that the district had not budgeted for a significant number of existing programs and teachers who had been hired. Administrators were using an "archaic" budgeting software that failed to do simple functions such as add and subtract. The payroll software Position Control had also been shut off.
Mills comes on board
A Citizens Advisory Group chaired by Richard Conard worked for weeks on narrowing down the superintendent candidates and supplying input for the Manatee County school board to choose who could lead the district out of the budget crisis.
"The Citizens Advisory Group represented the entire community and was extremely well-rounded," Vogel said.
The school board accepted applications through the first week of January, then narrowed the list to six candidates. After interviews with both the school board as a whole and individual board members, the board elected Rick Mills, a former top official with the Minneapolis school system. The Citizens Advisory Group called Mills data-driven, results-oriented and a change agent.
"Mills has a proven track record of leading great change in an organization," Vogel said. "The timing for his position left only a short window to make change in the organization. The year was rapidly coming to a close."
Mills laid out a 100-day plan that included a reorganization of staff. Mills eliminated the assistant superintendent positions, held by Scott Martin and Bob Gagnon, in favor of a deputy superintendent of operations and a deputy superintendent of instruction: Diana Greene, who was a finalist in the superintendent search, and Don Hall, who worked with Mills in Minnesota as the chief information officer.
Mills has said the more competitive job titles and higher salaries would allow for more talent in the district. The change cost $140,000 in salary increases.
The school board last week approved the addition of seven new district staff positions, including an executive director of human resources, a director of communications and family and community engagement and a budget director. At the same time, more than 90 staff positions were eliminated.
To save money in hopes of adding some bulk to the now-empty reserves, Mills cut 182 teacher positions, estimating that he will still be able to meet state-mandated class size limits.
"I am optimistic that the budget Mills is recommending will provide the 3 percent fund balance required by state, and the district will regain sound financial footing and status by the end of the '13-'14 school year," Vogel said. "To do that, we have to remain conservative in spending and adding positions."
Painful cuts from schools
The elimination of teachers brought some push back from parents and community members.
Karen Riley-Love, a parent of a fourth-grader at Anna Maria Elementary whose teacher was fired, sent around a petition that garnered more than 1,300 signatures in one week. (Today that petition has 1,729 signatures).
Community members also protested the district's decision to dip into schools' internal accounts. Money from after-school programs, year book sales and vending machines was "borrowed" to help the district meet the state-required 3 percent fund balance -- about $10 million -- by next July.
While Mills has said the district will repay 33 percent of that money, teachers were concerned that they would not have enough padding to get through the end of this year and the beginning of next year.
This school year also marked the last classes at both the Bradenton Charter School and Central High School. Bradenton Charter, according to the school board, was not renewed because some matters of concern from five years ago were never resolved.
"They did a great job with things like parent relations and insurance," school board member Bob Gause said. "But from the curriculum side, the wheels were falling off."
The school board also made the decision to close Central High, which Mills said was too costly to keep open. The school graduated its last senior class May 30. "We are spending $2.4 million on only a handful of graduates," Mills said. "The cost per student is too high and is not meeting needs."
Rowlett Elementary is set to decide whether it will convert to a charter school. Parents cast ballots from May 31 to Friday, and the votes will be counted on Monday. If 51 percent of the parents voted yes, the school board will then decide whether to grant Rowlett the charter.
Some bright spots
While this year brought tough decisions and financial hardship for the district, it also brought moments of victory for students.
Students from schools across the county shone in Technology Student Association conferences and other academic competitions.
Nolan Middle School took home the state title at the Technology Student Association state competition in Orlando in April, and Braden River High School also won a Technology Student Association state title, while Southeast High took second. The district's F1 racing team, Phoenix, captured the national championship for the USA Society for Automotive Engineers F1 in Schools.
The Bayshore High School robotics team had the honor of competing in the VEX World Robotics Championship in Anaheim, Calif., in April. Gullett Elementary students met First Lady Michelle Obama and working in the White House Garden for their efforts to promote healthy school meals. And at least 2,000 students received their high school diplomas in the past couple weeks.
Aranibar said that the focus cannot be on students if the budget is not in order, but she believes the district is moving in the right direction. "This is the first time dealing with information honestly," Aranibar said. "We are ending on a better note than we began."
Gause said that although the district will be ending this year in the red, he has learned a great amount.
"As bad as this year has been, the fact of the matter is that next year we will not have these problems," Gause said. "We will not still have a negative fund balance with everyone totally focused on it.
"The good news is, as painful as it is, is that we see it and are putting controls in place to stop it."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.