New leadership, new year for Manatee County school board

November 21, 2013 

Former Manatee County School Board chairwoman Karen Carpenter accepts a plaque and bouqet of roses from new chairwoman Julie Aranibar and vice chair Dave "Watchdog" Miner. ERICA EARL/Bradenton Herald.

With the reorganization of the Manatee County school board this week as usual in November, the panel bids farewell to a tumultuous year of urgent and difficult challenges and can now look forward to progress on achieving its overarching mission, the education of today's youth.

Julie Aranibar, elected chair of the board on Wednesday, will preside over the panel's policy decisions that will determine the school district's direction in yet another challenging year -- one with lesser but still demanding budget dilemmas than the previous year.

Karen Carpenter steps down as chair after 12 months of diplomatically handling the transition to a new superintendent and district leadership team and a budget that finally meets state standards.

She began the process of shifting the district's corporate culture into an open, more accountable and responsive one to the public, a vital goal to win back the trust of a constituency unnerved by past mistakes. Carpenter deserves applause for those demands on the administration. The job of tearing down insular walls remains a work in progress, but under Superintendent Rick Mills and his staff that work is one of the many priorities.

That concerted effort continued Wednesday with the first of the new community engagement forums, this one at Manatee High School, a meeting designed to strengthen dialogue and communication between parents and district leaders.

This is not a one-time communication with School Advisory Council members and parents, but one of quarterly meetings the district plans to put the public in direct touch with school leaders.

Transparency is critical as the district pushes forward. To the district's credit, additional public hearings on the budget than the state law required were scheduled earlier this year.

Despite the gaffe on posting the spending blueprint online, the district was quick to remedy that failure, too.

That transparency must be continued.

Equally important is fiscal discipline, a message that the superintendent has delivered to schools and the board. The current agenda includes the sale of surplus property in order to balance the budget of more than a half billion dollars -- at some $568 million.

When approved by the board in September, the extraordinary recovery from a $7.5 million deficit included the state-mandated reserve fund of 3 percent of its total budget, or $10.3 million by June 30, 2014 -- a working budget that meets state standards.

With a $3.9 million shortfall discovered last month -- unaccounted costs mostly due to teacher salaries hired to correct state compliance deficiencies -- the budget situation worsened. The district needs to sell surplus land to rectify that situation. On Tuesday, the board decided to sell a 10-acre parcel by Braden River High School and Manatee Technical Institute but hedged on other land sales.

While we cannot recommend fire sales, Mills rightly admonished the board by stating: "We will find ourselves unable to overcome our budget issues if we keep finding reasons not to sell properties."

Other potential surplus land included vacant parcels at Bayshore High, King Middle and Miller Elementary schools plus additional property at MTI.

This is only the second year of a financial and educational recovery that will take longer to solve. Only eight months into his term as superintendent, Mills is determined to lift the district into greater respectability and achievement.

His tough disciplinarian management style may rub certain district employees the wrong way, but a command structure must hold people accountable, too, just as the public demands of elected officials and top administrators.

Julie Aranibar now faces the challenge of advancing those goals as chair of the board. We wish her well in that endeavor. This is the second year of a sea change for a school district and board that must rise to tough times.

The education -- and promise -- of the next generation depends on future decisions.

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