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Manatee schools approve controversial hires

BRADENTON — After a long discussion Monday, the Manatee County school board hired two former elected officials and rehired the retired director of Manatee Technical Institute.

The announcement to hire former school board member Frank Brunner and former county commissioner Jane von Hahmann two weeks ago sparked a public outcry.

Board members spent a large chunk of their meeting discussing the district’s hiring process, and how the two managed to beat out 159 qualified candidates who applied for those jobs.

Brunner was hired to replace a career adviser at Manatee High. Von Hahmann received nods to be the district’s business and industry service specialist, a liaison between the small learning communities in high schools, MTI and the business communities.

The career adviser is a 10-month position that pays $40,594, and the industry service specialist is a 11-month position that pays $56,582. Both jobs are grant funded and will expire in 18 months.

Five people spoke out against those appointments. Von Hahmann, who attended the meeting, defended Superintendent Tim McGonegal’s recommendation to hire her.

Pat Morton, a Holmes Beach city commissioner, was concerned about how the district administration vetted the candidates.

Local attorney David Miner asked the board if either of the candidates had formal training in the positions they applied for.

Von Hahmann stood her ground, saying she is qualified for her new job. She spoke out against the outrage that her appointment had generated.

Being a former elected official should not bar her from her new job, she said. She said she used her network to learn about the job.

“However, if I use my network, it’s called cronyism,” she said.

To take on the complaints about the appointments, board members singled out Brunner and von Hahmann’s applications for discussion.

Board members also unanimously approved to rehire Mary Cantrell, the retired director of MTI, at a salary of $108,000. Her former salary was $119,065.

Under Florida’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), public employees who are 62 or have at least 30 years of service can opt to continue working for up to five years.

At their retirement at the end of the five years, they are allowed to receive a lump sum payment from a special retirement benefits account and draw a monthly retirement check. There is a loophole in the program that allows these employees to “retire” for 30 days before reapplying for the same job.

Cantrell was MTI’s director for 12 years. At her retirement, she collected a lump sum of about $262,000, according to the Florida Department of Management Services. Her monthly retirement benefits are about $4,000.

Cantrell received one retirement check, but will have to suspend her retirement checks until January 2010. After that, she will be drawing both pay and retirement checks.

The board voted 4-1 to hire Brunner and von Hahmann. School Board Member Bob Gause cast the dissenting vote.

For more than an hour, board members went back and forth on how they trust the hiring process and the people who did the hiring.

Board Member Barbara Harvey called the outcry directed at Brunner and von Hahmann prejudice.

“Because of somebody’s affiliation with the board 100 years ago, we would jeopardize the education of our children,” she said. “It’s unfair and I am ashamed I am a Manatee County resident right now. You’re saying you don’t want the best for the children because of their backgrounds.”

Gause said the move to hire Brunner and von Hahmann would damage the district’s reputation.

“It’s about public perception, regardless of what process was used,” he said. “They (the public) are not buying it.”

Von Hahmann owned Surfing World for 34 years before closing it, and was on the county commission for eight years before losing her last election.

Brunner, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, has been executive director of Crime Stoppers of Manatee County since 2004.

He was on the school board for 10 years. He resigned mid-term three years ago and ran unsuccessfully for a county commission seat.

Since then, he has worked for Manatee County Rural Health Services and Waste Management for about a year each.

In other business:

n The old Ellenton School, which the Manatee Historical Resources department claimed was built in 1905, will not be razed. Board members declared the property, including the school house and the 1.7-acre land, a surplus. The property will be put up for sale.

n Board members approved the 2009-10 school year calendar. Students’ first day of school is Aug. 24, and the last day is June 10, 2010.

n Imagine School at East Manatee changed its name to Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch and will serve students from grades six to eight. It currently enrolls pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.