Manatee interim superintendent looks forward despite uncertainty

MANATEE -- Bob Gagnon didn't see this coming. He thought the district was going to carefully search for a new administrator after former Superintendent Tim McGonegal announced last week that he planned to retire.

He'd seen the timelines that had McGonegal in his position until February.

But McGonegal abruptly announced Monday that he was immediately resigning from his position, and told Gagnon he had named him acting superintendent.

Hours later, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning found himself sitting in McGonegal's seat at the Manatee County School Board meeting as an angry audience demanded answers about the district's mishan

dling of funds.

And board members debated whether to accept Gagnon as interim superintendent. They eventually unanimously approved Gagnon as interim superintendent, but they were undecided on how long they see Gagnon in his new position. They plan to get more information from Florida School Boards Association President Wayne Blanton on realistic timelines for finding a permanent, and perhaps another temporary, replacement.

So while Gagnon doesn't know how long he's going to be interim superintendent, he says the length of time doesn't matter. He's eager for a timeline so he can start to project workflow -- it's hard to know whether he can enlist staff or adjust plans when he's not sure if he's going to be in his new position for two weeks or several months.

While he waits for more information, he says his priority is finding answers for a district that has lost faith in its administration.

His first action? Having an outside agency confirm exactly what happened when the salaries of more than 50 elementary school teachers and E Virtual School teachers, among other expenses, weren't budgeted for during the 2011-12 school year. The error cost the district $8 million.

On Thursday, Gagnon will meet with the audit committee and the school board to discuss who will complete a forensic audit of the 2011-12 school year. Gagnon will then make a recommendation for an auditing firm that will have to be approved by the board at next Monday's rescheduled budget hearing.

Public trust, he says, cannot be restored until the public and all district employees have answers.

"That's essential," Gagnon said. "This is an issue of public confidence and employee confidence."

Though Gagnon is now interim superintendent, he still is responsible for some of the duties of his position as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

He'll present an action plan to the school board at its Sept. 24 meeting that will state what elements of teaching and learning he'll continue to be involved in, and what duties he'll have to allocate to others.

Soon, Gagnon said, the district will have to move forward with the budget for the 2013-14 year, developing priorities that align with the interests of teachers and students.

"We have to put teachers' salaries first and then work backwards from there," Gagnon said. "And we need to be more diligent in process and procedures."

On Monday night, Gagnon made it clear that to accept the appointment of interim superintendent, he needed to have the option to apply for the permanent position, a scenario some board members said might dissuade other candidates from applying.

Gagnon also will pick up McGonegal's $171,000 salary for the time he serves as interim superintendent. His job as assistant superintendent is protected until the 2013-14 year.

Gagnon said he hasn't thought about whether he'd apply for the permanent position, but he doesn't want to eliminate any options this early.

Blanton, of the school boards association, is holding a workshop next Tuesday to show school board members their search options. Board members have said they will come to the next school board meeting with a realistic timeline for finding a permanent replacement, and clarity as to whether they want to seek a different interim superintendent.

Board Chairman Harry Kinnan said the idea that the interim superintendent could be a placeholder to a more qualified candidate is probably not realistic given how difficult it may be to quickly bring an interim or permanent candidate to the district.

"It's more difficult to find superintendents now than it was five to 10 years ago. I have not had the same number of applicants," Blanton said after McGonegal's retirement. "But the quality of the applicants has still been outstanding."

Blanton has previously said he expects 35 to 45 qualified applicants to come from a national search for a county of Manatee's size.

McGonegal did not return calls Tuesday to the Herald. But last week he was asked what the next superintendent needs to do to be successful in Manatee County.

McGonegal said the best person for the job would spend 50 percent of his or her time in the community and in schools. They'd also need to build a collaborative relationship with the school board.

"It needs to be a team of six," McGonegal said at the time.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.