Manatee County school district's way forward: righting a damaged ship

April 18, 2014 

The Community Conversation on the state of the Manatee County school district attracted about 100 people to State College of Florida on April 16, 2014. The panel (from left) featured SCF President Carol Probstfeld (co-moderator); Diane Greene, deputy superintendent of instruction; Superintendent Rick Mills; school board Chairwoman Julie Aranibar; Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations; and Chris Wille, Bradenton Herald editorial page editor (co-moderator). PHOTO PROVIDED

Wednesday evening's Community Conversation with top school district administrators and the school board chair gave the public detailed information about present and future practices designed to improve the district's academic standing and financial outcomes. Several disastrous past practices also came into sharper focus.

School board chair Julie Aranibar, Superintendent Rick Mills, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Diana Greene and Deputy Superintendent of Operations Don Hall all advanced illuminating explanations on many fronts.

Sponsored by the Bradenton Herald in partnership with host State College of Florida, the forum came at a time when Mills just surpassed his one-year anniversary on the job and both Greene and Hall approach theirs.

Hot topics

• In one community flashpoint -- the possible sale of the green space on Manatee Avenue West adjacent to Miller Elementary School -- Aranibar explained that the district cannot statutorily operate a park and cannot afford to give the land away. The three-acre parcel holds too much value for a district in need of financial resources to deed the land to the city of Bradenton or Manatee County, she stated.

We agree with that position.

Sale opponents hold very valid concerns about student safety with the commercial development of the land, so close to the school. They will have the opportunity to communicate their misgivings to the school board during public comment time whenever the idea hits the panel's agenda next.

• In the aftermath of December 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Conn., school, Manatee Glens President and CEO Mary Ruiz advanced the idea of mental health screening for students and training for teachers and others so they recognize the signs of a troubled students.

Greene outlined the district's plan to educate guidance counselors and other school personnel on spotting those individuals -- a judicious student safety policy vital to the prevention of a tragedy.

• Mills and his staff are nearing the completion of a fresh strategic plan, abandoning the flawed old one he inherited. The board should receive that in May for approval.

All in all, the key is alignment so every part of the district is moving in the same forward direction, not hither and yon as in the past.

• Fidelity to the budget is essential. Line items are being encumbered, meaning expenditures cannot be made willy-nilly without proper checks and balances.

Some 90 percent of the budget is dedicated to personnel, so other costs must be controlled tightly.

No longer will schools be able to simply write checks and later submit invoices.

No longer will a school be able to contact the administration, request additional teachers and secure new -- and unbudgeted -- positions, as happened under the previous administration, Mills stated.

As the budget year proceeds, new requests for resources will be vetted and granted only with the deletion of other budget items. If you add, you must subtract, Hall noted.

• In this new era of communication, school board members are constantly updated with detailed information on district operations and spending, unlike the past.

Lacking such transparency under the prior administration, board members had to trust district leaders. That trust was broken and the board accepts responsibility for approving abbreviated and misleading action items, Aranibar stated.

• The school district still awaits the Department of Education's response to its request for a state investigation into the fiscal wrongdoing under former Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

Since financial audits did not uncover criminal activity, should the district pursue a civil case on its own, the cost would have been too high during this time of financial recovery. Plus, the district would have been on the hook for McGonegal's legal defense since he was an employee then. That scenario is unacceptable.

The end game for a state probe can be summed up in one word -- closure. This community needs closure on this painful chapter in the district's history, Mills stated. We agree.

This wide-ranging and in-depth discussion reflects the school system's commendable and comprehensive change in direction. This should also continue the trend toward building public trust in district leadership.

Our thanks to SCF President Carol Probstfeld for hosting this public forum and co-moderating the panel discussion.

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