Upon being sworn in as superintendent of Manatee County schools on March 20, Rick Mills made a telling declaration about the state of the district: "We have serious challenges to face and should be further along than we are."
The second half of that statement highlights the urgency of the district's now seven-month struggle to come to grips with a budget catastrophe. But Mills is also rightly focused on raising student achievement, given Manatee's poor standing at 47th among Florida's 67 districts.
The school board and superintendent must move quickly on solving the budget mess, left in ruins after former superintendent Tim McGonegal disclosed last September that the district had failed to account for some teacher salaries, book purchases and other expenditures. Upon announcing the resulting $3.4 million deficit, he resigned.
During his first week in office, Mills put some solutions on the table. The district plans to eliminate 188 positions to save $10 million in the 2013-2014 budget. Most of those are teaching and teaching assistant jobs but the district hopes attrition through retirements and other reasons accounts for most staffing reductions. Senior administrative positions are also deservedly being targeted. Should layoffs be necessary, Mills announced Monday that employees would receive plenty of warning.
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Significantly, he cast doubt about staff reductions impacting school programs and electives, essential to a well-rounded education.
Oddly enough, the loss of teaching positions does not appear to put the district afoul of class-size requirements -- even though the district was fined the past three years for exceeding the restrictions on a number of classes. Apparently, the district hired too many teachers in response.
We agree with Mills' idea to acquire reliable and regular data in a number of areas, from budgeting to student performance. Even though this would require the purchase of software, data is critical to monitoring programs to ensure success and solve problems before they become major difficulties.
One of the brightest spots to date can be found in Mills' "100-Day Entry Plan," posted on the district's website. He faces head-on one of the chief failings in the past by stating: "First, many stakeholders do not think that (the district's) leadership is listening to them or attuned to their concerns. This has led many people to distrust the district, to view (it) negatively and to dismiss the district's many real accomplishments. I will address this issue of perceived deafness and distrust by seeking out stakeholders of all views and listening carefully to their concerns."
That is certainly a breath of fresh air.
Concrete action is already taking place. The district's audit committee, composed of some stakeholders, has approved changes -- including independence from school board membership, bimonthly instead of quarterly meetings and other charter modifications. Though these proposals await approval, school board chair Karen Carpenter indicated a positive position Monday: "This time the guidelines will be specific and adhered to."
In the past, the district ignored or watered down committee recommendations before sending them on to the board, as one former audit panel chair stated at a mid-January board workshop. Change is past due, and the new superintendent's pledge to listen to stakeholders is most welcome.
Rick Mills has had an eventful and meaningful first few days in office. We sense positive energy radiating out of district headquarters, and we're optimistic change elevates student achievement.