BRADENTON -- The six finalists in the running to be the next superintendent of Manatee County schools had some tough questions to answer Monday in their interviews with the school board and groups such as the Manatee Education Association.
What were their top priorities for budget management, closing the achievement gap, and de-emphasizing high-stakes tests such as the FCAT?
The six finalists are:
n Pamela Stewart, the K-12 chancellor of public school for the Florida Department of Education
n Rick Mills, the Minneapolis Public School District chief executive officer.
n Diana Greene, the former deputy superintendent of Marion County School District.
n John Carvelli, the principal of Pierce Hammock Elementary in Palm Beach.
n Constance Jones, the chief academic officer for the School District of Lee
n Kathryn LeRoy, the director of high school programs in Duval County.
School board members began the interviews by addressing the budget.
"We need the right people in the right seats to perform monthly financial reviews and to lay out the agenda around the budget process," said Mills, who suggested a five year "what if?" analysis to project and sustain programs.
Carvelli identified the need for an annual budget cycle to identify key benchmarks to hit during the school year. He said that input would come from board members as well as staff to surface unanticipated needs, such as additional teachers.
"I don't see anything as an overnight fix. It's going to involve extensive planning," Carvelli said.
School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner asked candidates how they would de-emphasize high-stakes testing.
Stewart pointed out that Florida is moving away from the FCAT to end-of-course exams and common core aligned assessments, but she added that those assessments would still come with pressures to pass.
"It is most important that students don't fear tests but feel confident to demonstrate what they have learned before the test happens," Stewart said, admitting that she does not believe she has the ability to de-emphasize such tests.
Mills said he believes there is an over-reliance on such tests, which are not only unfair but are curriculum-narrowing and inhibit creativity.
Jones saw a silver lining in the testing, although she admits it is not the most efficient tool.
"To help de-mystify the data, we need to make the most of it," she said. "From this data, families can see where school grades come from, and it can help strengthen the areas where we fall short."
Jones also wants consistency so that classes are of equal quality in all schools.
LeRoy stressed the importance of pre-kindergarten development.
"We have to get it right; children have to be reading on grade level by grade 3, or else it will get harder each year," she said, pushing for all-day pre-K rather than the current half-days.
The candidates seemed to agree that the goal should be earning an A grade for the district, and to see an improvement in student's academics and behavior. That, the candidates said, can be accomplished through getting parents involved.
Carvelli went through each subject area and found that most areas were below state average. He also saw that out-of-school suspensions measured more than 5,000 last year.
"I can't legislate parenting, but I can create an environment where parents can be a part of the process," Greene said.
Every candidate encouraged clubs and after-school and weekend programs to contend with absenteeism and discipline issues.
At this point, no one has been mentioned as a front-runner by either members of the school board, the MEA, or any other groups.
"New leadership needs to take account of the balance and culture that exists in the community," LeRoy said. "It needs to build on the foundations of what's already working."
The finalists will undergo one-on-one interviews with each of the five board members today beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 2:55 p.m.
The school board will choose the superintendent on Feb. 20, and the interviews with the new superintendent will be streamed April 25 on METV on cable.
Erica Earl, Herald education reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7081 or tweet @ericabearl