MANATEE -- The school board unanimously approved David Gayler's interim superintendent contract Monday, including conditions that Gayler end his position in late March.
"I really think Dr. Gayler giving us a tighter time frame than we wanted will keep our feet to the fire," board member Karen Carpenter said Monday. "We have to stay very much on task here, and I think we will."
The former superintendent of Charlotte County schools, who did not attend the meeting, will begin his position on Oct. 15 and earn $16,392 per month during his time in the district.
On Monday, board members expressed a commitment to working toward restoring public faith in the district, which in the past month has experienced a $3.5 million budget deficit and the ensuing resignation of former superintendent Tim McGonegal.
But public comments at Monday's meeting were a stark reminder that all is not well in the district.
Several Manatee County bus drivers spoke tearfully about how pay cuts have drastically affected their ability to make a living.
Judy Cumpston, a union rep for the transportation department and a district bus driver for 13 years, handed letters to board members from bus drivers who are struggling to make ends meet.
"You guys would be in more of a budget crunch if we weren't driving those buses," Cumpston said to the board, her voice cracking. "We don't feel that we are honored. We feel like we get looked over."
Cumpston described an environment that includes 11-hour workdays because not all drivers can afford to transport themselves back home between shifts and mandatory on-the-job training. She said the last time she had a raise was more than five years ago and, because of salary cuts and the rising costs of benefits, she and some other drivers are on food stamps. Some, she said, are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions, such as getting less hours.
Cumpston shared an anonymous letter she gave to school board members on behalf of a bus driver.
"I cannot afford my rent and to feed my kids. I cannot afford the insurance, so my kids don't have any insurance," the letter read. "I can't find a second job."
Other comments from the public targeted one board member for criticism.
Richard Greene spoke on behalf of Neighbors United for a Better Education, which members say is no longer a political action committee as of Oct. 1. The group formed as a PAC in January 2012, partly to monitor the board's fiscal decisions.
Green specifically referenced the District 4 election in August, in which board member Bob Gause defeated opponent Linda Schaich for the seat. Former superintendent McGonegal has said that he knew about the budget deficit on Aug. 2, about two weeks before the election. Because that information was withheld from the public, Green said the validity of the election -- and Gause's reputation -- were in question.
"We will never know how that election would have turned out had that information been available," Green said before suggesting that Gause remove himself from budget decisions for next year and think about resigning from the board because his reputation is "damaged."
Gause didn't respond to Green's suggestions.
At Monday's meeting, the board, in addition to other business, took time to outline its plans to begin the new superintendent search and settle on a firm to perform a forensic audit.
n Audit committee representative Jim Toomey updated the board on the progress of the district's forensic audit of the 2011-12 school year that will determine who knew about the $8 million of overspending last year that led to the deficit. Trenam Kemker, the law firm the committee chose to select an audit firm, will present its recommendation at a Thursday committee meeting, Toomey said.
n The board also approved the demolition of a Manatee High School storage building, which was damaged by a fire in July and found to contain asbestos. The school board will contract with OHC Environmental Engineering, Inc. to remove the asbestos before the demolition is scheduled so that the building material, which is known to cause illnesses such as lung cancer, doesn't spread into the air.
n Board Chairman Harry Kinnan reminded the public that before a superintendent search can begin, hearings will be held to gather public opinion. They are scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 11 at Braden River High School Auditorium, 6 p.m. Oct. 15 at Manatee High School's Davis Theatre and 6 p.m. Oct. 16 at Palmetto High School Auditorium. At the public hearings, members of the public will be allowed up to speak up to three minutes.
n A workshop with Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Oct. 22.
"He's going to set some timelines up and he's going to set some parameters," Kinnan said Monday. "We're going to have input from the community that I'm sure he will be interested in compiling." In addition, a website will be operational Tuesday so that the public can follow the superintendent search. The public can share comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.