Manatee County school board candidates respond to text discussions between Mills, Cantrell
BRADENTON -- Some school board candidates are questioning why Manatee County school district Superintendent Rick Mills and District 5 candidate Mary Cantrell discussed returning Cantrell to her former job at Manatee Technical Institute.
Cantrell signed an affidavit that Mills did not tell her she could have her job back if she dropped out of the race. But she maintains that in a July 3 meeting, it was made clear that her dropping out of the race would be necessary for her to return to her post at the director of MTI. On July 3, Cantrell met with Mills; Diana Greene, the deputy superintendent of instruction; Doug Wagner, director of adult, career and technical education, and other staff members.
The potential for Cantrell to return to her job came out of a meeting on July 2 with Mills. Mills said he would explore the option, and Cantrell was under the impression it could become a reality.
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"We had an agreement," she said Tuesday. "I'm from Texas, we do a lot of things on a handshake."
Mills has been meeting with each of the school board candidates "to get to know the candidates, to open lines of communication, to hear their concerns and priorities, to provide information as requested and to inform them that as superintendent he will be completely neutral in the upcoming election," according to information provided by the district.
On Tuesday, several school board candidates said meeting one-on-one with Mills is a good idea, as it helps lay the groundwork and create a more personal relationship.
"I think it's very wise for him to get to know everyone," Cantrell said Tuesday.
Still, District 5 candidate Carlton "Les" Nichols, one of those running against Cantrell, said it was "disappointing" to discover that Mills' meeting with Cantrell turned out the way it did. He said the meetings and text messages, which he said were not transparent, could be a sign of things to come if Cantrell is elected to the school board.
"This is now how we do it," he said.
District 2 candidate Rodney Jones said he was surprised to hear the district was open to giving Cantrell her job back, since her contract was not renewed.
"That's kind of strange to me," he said. "That's really odd." Julie Aranibar, current board chair and the District 5 incumbent in the race against Cantrell, Nichols and James Golden, had no comment on the issue. Golden did not return requests for comments.
Charlie Kennedy, the other District 2 candidate, did not feel comfortable commenting on the issue.
Current board member and District 4 candidate Karen Carpenter said she was "surprised" at the reports, adding, "I know Cantrell and Mills personally."
"I was surprised about it, that's the best I can say," she said, before she declined to comment further.
The other district 4 candidate, Frank Brunner, did not return requests for comments.
The private one-on-one meetings allow Mills to ask the candidates' views on his performance, and also allow the candidates to ask about district issues. Cantrell took the meeting as an opportunity to ask Mills why he did not renew her contract as the director of MTI. She said she was caught off guard when he intimated that he might be willing to review that decision and explore whether the district could bring her back.
When rumors about the discussion between Mills and Cantrell surfaced, Mills asked Cantrell to sign an affidavit saying he never told her she had to drop out of the race. Wagner also signed an affidavit saying the superintendent did not tell Cantrell she had to drop out of the race.
Wagner told the Bradenton Herald that the meeting was simply an "exploratory meeting" to determine Cantrell's interest in the job.
The district did not renew Cantrell's contract earlier this year as it laid off some district employees. Wagner will lead MTI, while retaining his current post.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.