Manatee schools to try 'community engagement' forums

eearl@bradenton.comOctober 4, 2013 

The Manatee County School Board: Linda Carpenter, left, Bob Gause, Julie Aranibar, Dave "Watchdog" Miner and Barbara Harvey. Manatee County School District photo.

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District is rolling out a new series of meetings for parents, School Advisory Council members and district staff to promote communication and transparency. The so-called community engagement forums are expected to take place four times per year.

Steve Valley, school district executive director of communications and family and community engagement, met with SAC members Thursday night to introduce the idea for the community engagement forum.

"The school district hasn't done a very good job over the past few years of being established in the community," said Valley. Valley created the concept of the community engagement forum with Dawn Allen, district coordinator of community involvement.

"We want to get out in the community in a formal meeting," Valley said. "This will not be an open mic where everyone will walk up and complain; nothing gets accomplished that way."

Valley said the goal is to meet four times per year with a structured agenda to ask questions and discuss concerns ranging from classroom issues to the district budget. The idea is for district staff members, the superintendent and SAC members, including parents and teachers, to meet in one central location.

Valley said the plan is for SAC members to submit topics of concern in advance to be organized into an agenda.

"It will be two-way communication, not just the district telling you what to do," Valley said.

Valley said his one demand is to meet at a school, not a district meeting,

Parent and teacher concerns include student population and inadequate staffing in positions such as guidance counselors and school resource officers.

Parents said there is still overcrowding in some classrooms and schools, yet others have empty seats.

SAC members also want to talk with district officials about curriculum ranging from cursive writing to the use of technology in the classroom.

Ann Keefer, SAC chairwoman for Palmetto High School, said she thinks the meetings are a good idea considering how much change has occurred in the district this year.

"We are all very passionate, but here will have to be some controls to keep the conversation focused and to keep stop from becoming an open mic," Keefer said.

Keefer said the initiative is similar to the joint parent organization held when Roger Dearing was superintendent, but different because these meetings will include parents and district staff.

"We all need to do a much better job at communicating, and not just in a forum like this," said school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter. "We are all accessible by phone or e-mail."

Carpenter said while constructing the budget was painful, rebuilding community trust will be even more challenging.

The first community engagement forum is expected to be scheduled for the first week of November.

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

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