Sparks fly between Manatee school board members in communications training session

Manatee school board member's use of the word "lap dog" prompts controversy

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 4, 2014 

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

Editor's note: This report includes an update on a disputed exchange between school board members Dave Miner and Barbara Harvey, based on comments Tuesday.

MANATEE -- Communication, and the confusion around it, was the primary topic Monday morning at the Manatee County School Board's training session.

The session, meant to review the draft of a new operations manual, turned into feuds over how to handle relations with the community, with debate over no longer televising board training sessions and selecting one board member to be the spokesperson for the board.

The operations manual draft, which the board referred to as a guideline, covers proposed policies for communications around meetings and workshops. Its purpose is to establish more concrete guidelines for communication between the district and board members before and during meetings.

"I have problems with every page in this proposal," school board vice chair Dave "Watchdog" Miner said at the start of the session. "If one of us has a moral objection, should it be a principle to shut up about something I think is important? I don't think so."

From the start of the training, Miner reiterated his concerns for communication in the district. Miner was still challenging changes to the format of monthly financial reports the district provides to school board members.

School board member Barbara Harvey said the board should not be fragmented in its communication to students, their parents and the public in general.

But Miner referred to Harvey, a fellow board member, as a "lapdog" after his complaint about the district's inability to answer his questions concerning the district's finances was met with a plea for better teamwork.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Miner said he didn’t call anyone a “lapdog.” But Harvey still insists his comments were directed at her. The Herald is working to obtain a video of the meeting for further review.

“It is very complex what was happening,” Miner said Tuesday. END UPDATE

Harvey was visibly upset by his comment and had school board attorney James Dye help her down from the elevated platform and out of the room.

Harvey called for more harmony on the school board before leaving the meeting to compose herself.

"Everyone brings a different background and a different perspective to the table," she said. "But we need to be able to put aside individual differences and work as a team. I might have to leave this meeting."

When Harvey returned, she watched the meeting from a chair in the corner of the room.

"It shouldn't be about 'gotcha!' comments, but rather a conversation," Harvey said. "I'm saddened by the condition of this board."

Harvey wasn't alone in her disappointment.

"This confirms why we are so far apart," said community member Norm Nelson, who attended the meeting. "We have five people who can't get it together. They need to agree on what is governance and what is management."

Andrea Messina, a representative from the Florida School Board Association volunteering her time to work with the Manatee County School Board's training session, said the board needs to establish job descriptions for the chair and vice chair, as other districts have done.

School board chairwoman Julie Aranibar said there is a big learning curve when anyone is elected to the school board.

"Sometimes when board members comment about negotiations, it causes trouble if it looks like they are going around a process," Messina said. Messina suggested appointing a board member, or Aranibar, to handle questions from the community and from the media.

The board did not balk.

Miner said it is best for all board members to refrain from comments that involve litigation within the district.

School board member Karen Carpenter said the board needs to use better discretion, and that includes at the dais.

"Sideline conversations and giggling are inappropriate," Carpenter said. "I do not think it hurts to remind ourselves of that."

Carpenter said she would also like to see more reporting from other committees within the district.

"It would be helpful to get a report, as we are always getting information from different committees," Carpenter said.

As a money-saving measure, the board discussed not televising training sessions such as the one Monday, and instead simply have audio recordings. School board member Bob Gause made the suggestion.

"It is training to better function, not discussion of agenda items," Messina said.

School board attorney Dye said to be in the Sunshine, the trainings must remain open to the public and recordings should be available, but it is not a requirement to televise the training.

"This is training, where we learn to work together," Aranibar said. "We are not discussing how to vote or where we stand on land, but we are getting together to learn from other districts and what caused them to be high performing."

The operations manual remains a draft.

The training, which began at 9 a.m., adjourned a little after 1 p.m. before the school board made it through the whole manual. Messina said it should be recognized that the board at least made an effort to meet and discuss communications issues.

"With five people on the board, you do see disparate personalities," Messina said. "There is no typical school board, and each has its own dynamic. But they were here to try to reach a solution, and they should get credit for that."

Attendee Linda Neely expressed disappointment that the board did not make it through the operations manual within the four hours, and Nelson agreed that more time should have been spent on discussing the nature of the manual.

"If they switch from calling it procedures to calling it guidelines, it takes away the accountability of the board," Nelson said. "Guidelines can be followed, but procedures are mandatory."

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

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