With classrooms opening Monday for the first day of the new year, the Manatee County school district can place a sharp focus on its mission, "to inspire our students with a passion for learning, empowered to pursue their dreams confidently and creatively while contributing to our community, nation and world."
A year ago at this time, a financial collapse loomed amid campaigning for two school board positions. Budget and administrative matters took precedence over education in September after a deep deficit became public and the superintendent hastily resigned.
Under new Superintendent Rick Mills, selected by the board in February, the district has accomplished a great deal on the road to recovery.
First and foremost, the 2013-2014 budget is balanced, erasing the deficit, replenishing the reserve account and establishing financial stability. After four years of deficit spending that reached $38 million, this is a dramatic turnaround. The district avoided a state takeover with the tentative $565 million budget, which awaits final board approval.
Second, the district and the teachers union hammered out a tentative contract that contains pay raises -- the first in four years. This follows three years of school board votes to impose contracts on the Manatee Education Association after the union rejected district proposals and negotiations failed.
MEA members will soon vote on the new contract agreement, reached just last week. Those wage hikes will be around $1,750. Teachers aides, custodian, bus drivers and other support personnel will also receive pay increases.
This, too, is a very welcome development.
As is the rehiring of 69 of the 185 teachers laid off under emergency budget circumstances at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Overall, 176 of those teachers found employment, the district announced last week. Another six teachers are eligible for placement in Manatee school as positions open.
The superintendent dismantled and rebuilt district leadership, assembling a team of top administrators from outside the Manatee school system for newly created positions. Two more appointments were approved last week and one still remains open. Since these new district leaders lack strong connections to veteran district personnel, that should extinguish the nepotism and cronyism that had plagued the system's culture.
The superintendent's insistence on strong management extends to classrooms, too, with his plan for a new system to improve student skills and achievement. With instructional leadership teams, professional learning communities and data teams at each school, the district intends to establish system-wide consistency and coordination to secure uniform instruction. Individual school plans will no longer be allowed.
Some of the district's most vocal critics now stand in support of the new administration's change of course, yet another promising sign. Teachers can enter classrooms this week energized by fresh student faces and secure in the knowledge that accountability is being established at all levels in the district.
Progress on improvements in student achievement and educational gains are essential. The district can once again concentrate on that without monumental distractions. And the community will bear witness to the sea change in leadership policies that are still evolving.