BRADENTON -- In her first community appearance as the new superintendent of the Manatee County School district, Diana Greene was peppered with questions and concerns ranging from community trust to academic success Monday evening.
More than 40 people listened from the pews at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church as Greene addressed questions about finances, alternative schools and her vision for Manatee County schools.
Greene was a last minute addition to a panel that included: United Way of Manatee County President Philip Brown, Manatee resident Cheryl McGruder Holloway, former Manatee County School Board member Barbara Harvey, Manatee County Commissioner Charles Smith, Richard Conard and Manatee NAACP President Susie Copeland. The panel was facilitated by Gregory Alexandrea, a store manager and bank officer from Wells Fargo.
During the meeting Greene emphasized that she plans to bring change and healing to the district.
"We can argue back and forth about things that have happened in the past, or we can decide that we have a new beginning," she told the crowd. "You have a superintendent and we need to move forward."
Still at the top of everyone's mind were taxes and especially a potential referendum to increase the county's millage rate to fund schools.
"As I said to our school board members, if they're not going to do the right thing, I'm not going to support an increase -- and that's the bottom line," Copeland said. "We have to hold the school board accountable in how the funds are spent and, if they're not spending them in accordance to the way we believe they should be, then we should not vote to have that millage rate increased."
Conard said he thinks the school board has to prove to the community that they're trustworthy of the public's vote.
"Until then, I'm very concerned that they won't get that," he said.
Greene clarified the use of impact fees, which she said can only be used for infrastructure, such as buying land for new schools.
"You cannot use impact fees to pay for construction," Greene said. "You cannot use impact fees to pay for operating expense for the district, so it has a very specific purpose."
She said the district decided not to use impact fees in recent year because it wasn't in a "building mode." Now the school district is working with the county on an impact fee study to help deal with a spike in growth.
"It is required in law before we possibly reinstate the impact fee," she said
Green said Manatee schools out east are overcrowded, but there are other schools with plenty of seats.
"The state will not allow you to build a new school when you do not have all your seats occupied, so that's the problem," she said. "That's the quagmire that the district is in. We have one portion of our district that is blowing up, and other portions of our district where we are losing students."
Greene acknowledged that the school district must build trust within the community.
"But we cannot do that if we continue to have the divides," she said. "There's no such thing as a 'Westie' and an 'Eastie' to me. All I know is that I have students that attend Palmetto, they attend out in Parrish, they attend in Lakewood Ranch, they attend in Bradenton -- but they're all Manatee County students. All 48,000 of them."
The panel was also asked about plans for alternative schools. Harvey, who spoke first, said her vision is that the county won't need more alternative schools.
"We don't need the alternative schools," she said. "We need parents. We need churches."
Greene, who agreed with Harvey, said the school board is reviewing what they call an "early warning system" for the 2015-2016 school year. She said the system gives officials a snapshot into the future if there is no intervention.
"It takes things such as attendance, poverty, grades, all these things go into this system," Greene said.
To help combat some of the issue Greene said the district is in the process of creating a job description for a graduation enhancement technician. The position, which will be at all Title 1 schools in Manatee County, will work with students who have chronic absenteeism.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.