The past year put some tough challenges on Manatee County. But there are plenty of positive stories from 2013 to applaud as we enter the new year.
By far the most overriding issue on this Opinion page over the past 12 months happened to be the Manatee County school district -- not a surprise considering the turmoil that began last year and the ongoing difficulties.
Here's a look at the Herald Editorial Board's Top 10 issues this year:
1. School district budget
After the 2012 financial catastrophic disclosure of a massive budget deficit and the superintendent's sudden resignation, the distressing fiscal developments continued to mount throughout the year -- more so with this month's state audit that revealed additional questionable budget findings and some school board members attacking the district's response to those citations as "vague." The situation remains muddled.
2. New district leadership
But we do believe that under Superintendent Rick Mills, appointed in February, the district is headed in the right direction with a new administrative team and a determination to change a corporate culture that once allowed a sense of entitlement to thrive. Only time will tell on this but even sharp district administration critics are hopeful, too, that budgetary controls will bring the system back from the depths of despair.
3. School investigations
Two are still evolving, both about Manatee High School sports coaches who resigned in the wake of accusations about either misconduct or misrepresentation.
In one, a former assistant football coach and parent liaison faces state misdemeanor charges that relate to improper contact with students and staff. Five administrators have been recommended for termination for failure to report child abuse in the case, and two of those individuals are also accused of providing false report to authorities. Four pleaded innocent to criminal charges as has the former coach.
In the other case, an ex-baseball coach stayed in his position without the proper teaching certificate, and the alleged financial improprieties between his private athletic training company and Manatee High's baseball program ensnared legendary football coach Joe Kinnan, who faces a suspension and demotion in a case still to be heard.
4. Student achievement up
Despite all of the above controversy, students and teachers remained on track on the academic front and improved test scores proved the success of that hard word. Seniors exceeded state and national averages on the SAT this year, and the district's graduation rate topped the state mark and the dropout rate fell again -- both trending in the right direction for years now..
5. Economy on upswing
Manatee County's economy continues to improve with unemployment falling month by month, and the tourism industry breaking records. The sports industry is surging to the forefront in several distinct paths. Leading the way: Bradenton's IMG Academy with an explosive expansion that includes a 5,000-seat stadium and Lakewood Ranch's Premier Sports Campus and its prized state-of-the-art fields. The promise of Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park sits in the wings, what with this year's designation as host for the 2017 World Rowing Championships and other international and national events coming.
6. Sales tax failure
The Manatee County government's attempt to pass a half-cent sales tax referendum to pay for indigent medical care and reduce property taxes failed with voters. County officials could not counter the sharp criticism that decried the measure as a precarious promise about property tax reduction when the ballot language did not contain that pledge.
7. Long Bar Pointe proposal
More than a thousand people descended on the Manatee County commission meeting in August over the massive project designed to bring a luxury hotel, conference center, stores and thousands of residences to the vacant farmland along Sarasota Bay in southwest Manatee.
Opponents outnumbered advocates by a long shot. Commissioners rejected the developers' request for a Comprehensive Plan text amendment but passed a map amendment that could have paved the way for final approval of a scaled-down project -- but the developers withdrew the plan just last week.
8. Bradenton Housing Authority scandal
What began in September with the startling ouster of two of the agency's top executives continues today. The investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that led to the firings found the pair logged vacation time as work hours, the only major disclosure the federal agency has disclosed so far. The authority also must deal with a $300,000 deficit, a troubling problem given the BHA's mission of helping low-income residents with housing.
9. Manatee PerformingArts Center opens
This has to be the feel-good story of the year: The opening of the Manatee Performing Arts Center in March and the formal grand gala in August herald the arrival of Bradenton as a major player in southwest Florida's cultural scene alongside downtown's other arts assets. More than a decade in the making as the Manatee Players theater troupe stood by a commitment to avoid debt and pay for construction as donations arrived, the sparkling arts center is spectacular achievement of individual generosity and community determination.
10. Medical marijuana
Once again, this issue has been brought into the spotlight by a long-suffering Parrish woman who depends on marijuana to relieve her pain and improve her appetite in her long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Her 16-year fight to legalize medical marijuana gained a strong advocate this year when high-powered lawyer John Morgan took up the cause and bankrolled a petition drive to place an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot that would allow medicinal pot.
The measure's ballot language is yet to be approved or rejected by the Florida Supreme Court, and the petition drive has yet to gain enough signatures to be placed before voters in 2014.
A surprising 82 percent of Florida voters approve of medical marijuana, a November poll by Quinnipiac University found -- so amendment passage is virtually guaranteed should it make the ballot.