Education

The quandary: Hire Diana Greene or undertake national search for next Manatee school superintendent?

BRADENTON -- It's no secret Diana Greene wants to be a superintendent.

She was a finalist two years ago in Manatee County, ultimately losing out to former Superintendent Rick Mills by a split board vote.

Mills later hired her as deputy superintendent of instruction. In recent months, she was a superintendent finalist in at least two other school districts, St. Lucie County in Florida and a district in South Carolina.

"Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," Greene jokes.

As much as Greene, 51, says she wants to be superintendent in Manatee County, she's not 100 percent sure she'll reapply for the job -- mostly because of the way the Manatee County School Board may go about the process.

"I respect the board and it's their decision, and I'll accept whatever decision they make," Green said. "Right now, it's an emotional thing."

As the district looks to replace Mills, who announced an early retirement after two tumultuous years with the Manatee County School District, some board and community members say they are ready to put Greene into the district's top slot without conducting a search. The board discussed the option at its most recent meeting as Greene sat quietly on the dais waiting to see whether they'd promote her.

Others say the board needs to work with the community to repair trust, build a more comprehensive idea of district needs and conduct a superintendent search before putting Greene -- or anyone else -- into the job.

The looming question: Will Greene stick around in Manatee County as the board conducts a search for a candidate?

"It's like someone says 'I really want to marry you, but let me check out a few other people to be sure.' I may love that person, but then it's on me to stay and wait or ..." Greene told the Bradenton Herald.

Her strengths include: a willingness to work with stakeholders on issues; a warm, comforting and caring personality, which stands in stark contrast to Mills' personality; and slight, but continuing improvement in test scores.

Potential pitfalls: her ties to Mills and the amorphous ways academic achievement is attained and determining who is responsible for progress -- teachers, new student populations, administration or the changing ways tests are used as a measurement against previous tests.

And some school board members and community members simply want a national search for a superintendent.

Two years in Manatee

After Greene lost out to Mills for the superintendent job in March 2013, one of his first moves was to ask her to come aboard as his deputy. She left her post as deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Marion County, where she had worked since 2001 overseeing instructional efforts and leading a division of more than 200 employees.

This year, with new mandates and new state tests, Greene had to navigate changing legislation, which at first forced the district to create end-of-course exams for every course offered from kindergarten through 12th grade. Districts statewide received a last-minute reprieve from Gov. Rick Scott and were able to cancel those exams, bringing relief to teachers and students -- but not necessarily enough testing relief to satisfy Greene or the community.

She has also been at the forefront during the state online testing push, which has meant creative scheduling for a district without enough working computers to serve all students. The company administering the state tests also had a number of software and security challenges, resulting in students being kicked out of online exams early or being unable to complete them.

Other districts had more widespread problems with online software and students and families choosing to opt out of the tests, but those issues haven't been much of a problem in Manatee County.

"I think I can count on one hand how many students have opted out," Greene told the board at the last meeting.

The Manatee district is continuing a slow academic climb, with students and schools improving their grades and rankings in comparison with the state.

Financial meltdown

When Greene came to the district, it was in the midst of a financial meltdown, uncovered when then-Superintendent Tim McGonegal announced a severe deficit and immediately resigned.

Mills and his new team were charged with cleaning up the finances. In the short term, officials say the district is in a good financial position. The district's long-term fiscal stability still hangs in the balance unless new sources of revenue are found, officials warn.

The district may need to ask voters to approve:

Increasing local property taxes above the state maximum;

Passing a $150 million bond to build new schools and;

Extending the half-cent sales tax.

The board may also reinstate impact fees, which does not require voter approval.

The financial recovery campaign will fall on the new superintendent to restore fiscal accountability, which requires a unified school board.

Greene also has a troubled financial past, including foreclosures on property owned with her husband, which could be a factor in a district plagued by vast financial issues Mills was brought in to help fix. In the period between 2007 and 2011, she and her husband, James, had a number of foreclosures on rental homes they owned in Ocala.

Many Florida residents lost homes during that time frame -- many of which were underwater -- and Greene said mounting medical bills related to a serious illness one of her children had and tenants not paying rent led to the foreclosures.

"We worked through those challenges and we are much stronger and better for it," Greene said.

As a deputy superintendent for 12 years and especially the last two in Manatee County, Greene said she is capable of handling the district's finances.

Although consultants encourage school boards and their lawyers to do in-depth background searches on their final candidates, the financial information isn't a deal breaker, said Odell Stuckey, an associate with BWP and Associates who helped Richland One, a district in South Carolina, look for a superintendent.

Stuckey speaks highly of Greene as a candidate.

"You're be hard-pressed to find someone stronger than Greene," he said.

Search decision

To hire a superintendent without doing a search would be a disservice to the community, contends board Chairman Bob Gause.

"The general consensus I was receiving was, you owe it to the community to see if there's someone better than what you've got," Gause said.

Board members Dave Miner, Mary Cantrell and Karen Carpenter say they tend to agree with Gause.

"I support her as superintendent," Carpenter said. "I don't think we're ready because of the toxicity and the confusion to have a vote for her."

New board member Charlie Kennedy said the board should place Greene in the position. He stated his preference at the last board meeting, but it failed to gain any traction with fellow board members.

Some emails board members have received since their last meeting support the majority point of view.

"It may be true that Dr. Greene is the best person to replace Mr. Mills as a superintendent, but how will we know that if a search is not done?" Janet Kerley, a retired superintendent, emailed to Gause. "If Dr. Greene is the best person, she will rise to the top."

Harry Kinnan, a former school board member, voiced similar thoughts in an email to Kennedy.

"I believe the process used in the selection of a new superintendent is vitally important to our community," he wrote. "Please consider using a wide net to attract a strong pool of applicants from throughout the state."

Other community members echo the motion of placing Greene in the superintendent's seat.

"The action of the board Tuesday night in not putting Dr. Greene in as our superintendent, even as an interim, was terrible. She cannot do more to prove she is the one to lead our district on the right path in all areas," Jim Pauley, the Southeast High School principal, emailed to board members.

Former board member Barbara Harvey, one of two votes for Greene as superintendent in 2013, also wants the board to put Greene into the position immediately.

"It is time for the healing of our schools as we regain focus on all of our children," she wrote board members. "I request that you select Dr. Diana Greene as the next superintendent of Manatee County Schools."

Sought-after candidate

Greene may be one of the most sought-after superintendent candidates in the state of Florida, according to superintendent search consultants who work with school boards to recruit candidates.

"From my experience, I think she's one of the strongest candidates right now to be superintendent," said Bill Vogel, a consultant with the Florida School Boards Association who helped Manatee County in its last search and served as interim superintendent for the county before Mills was hired. Vogel, who lives in Manatee County, also aided St. Lucie County in its superintendent search.

Vogel said he gets calls about Greene and Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, who is serving as interim superintendent.

Florida has had a lot of superintendent turnover in the last six months, Vogel said, but couldn't pin down why as every district has different circumstances. Brevard County and Manatee County are conducting the only active superintendent searches Vogel knows of, he said Friday.

Jim Huge of Jim Huge & Associates, lead firm in the St. Lucie superintendent search, said he would put Greene in another search "in a minute" based on her background and experience.

"It's all positive," Huge said of Greene's background. "She was exceedingly well received."

Huge and Vogel said the failure to earn a superintendent spot has nothing to do with Greene as a person.

"The board could almost have drawn straws," Huge said of St. Lucie.

The St. Lucie School Board picked Wayne Gent as superintendent from four finalists. Gent, the sitting superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, previously worked in St. Lucie County.

Richland One also chose a candidate who previously worked as a superintendent in hiring Craig Witherspoon, who most recently served as superintendent of Birmingham City Schools in Alabama.

Greene said she is selective about where she will apply as she looks out for the best interest of herself and her family. She is married to James Greene, a financial adviser for First Command. They have two sons: Aldon, 25, who attends Rasmussen College in the Tampa Bay area, and Joshua, 19, who attends High Point University in North Carolina on a baseball scholarship. The South Carolina superintendent position was not far from High Point.

Greene is fairly mobile because she does not own property in Manatee County, according to property records. She and her husband live in a condo in the River Strand Golf and Country Club.

As the board works through the process, Greene said she is keeping her options open, but is continuing her duties as deputy, attending a number of events last week, including a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance meeting, visiting the library to see children from Rogers Garden Elementary School and attending the Manatee Black Chamber of Commerce meeting.

"I have a lot of faith. There's a reason why this is happening," she said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.

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