Manatee County school chief’s retirement not too surprising after years of unrelenting criticism

Manatee County will lose an upstanding and respected public servant and community leader with Tim McGonegal's announcement of his retirement as superintendent of schools in February.

While he cited "personal reasons" in his statement and declined interviews, his tenure over the past few years has been marked by a contentious school board and sharp public criticism amid a poor state ranking on student test scores, pitched battles over the district's finances and tough contract negotiations with the teachers union.

All of this has apparently taken its toll on the 54-year-old McGonegal. Appointed superintendent in January 2009 after serving in financial posts since joining the district in 2002,

McGonegal has endured the worst repercussions of the Great Recession -- slashing the district's budget by a total of some $60 million over the past four years.

The election of two new school board members two years ago, Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter, signaled a shift in board oversight of the district. Previously, former educators dominated the board and did not micromanage district affairs.

Aranibar and Carpenter often criticized McGonegal over the district budget, teacher pay cuts and the underfunded health plan, among other issues. Both have also panned his job performance over the past two years.

In his annual board evaluation of his performance in June, McGonegal earned his highest marks for his community relations and his lowest grade in board relations. His rankings in the six categories reflected the split in the board, with Aranibar and Carpenter in one bloc and Bob Gause, Barbara Harvey and Harry Kinnan in the other.

Aranibar, the only board member who refuses to meet with McGonegal for regular one-on-one discussions, gave the superintendent the lowest marks possible in 17 of the 27 rating areas.

Still, the board extended his contract through December 2014 in a 4-1 vote, with Carpenter the lone nay.

Last year. Aranibar and Carpenter voted against most of McGonegal's budget proposals while advocating for deeper spending reductions in the administration. Gause strongly disputed the perception that the administration was bloated.

This year, McGonegal was forced on the defensive yet again, despite having cut 150 administrative positions over the past four years. In an April memorandum to board members, the superintendent cited state data that showed Manatee ranked 42nd lowest among Florida's 67 school districts for administrative expenditures.

Another bone of contention has been district spending on consultants fees. Two years ago, public consternation over the spending proved overblown after McGonegal explained that $30 million went to charter schools as mandated by state law.

The issue returned to the table this year, forcing administrators to explain that two-thirds of the $15.6 million budgeted for consultants fees benefited students through tutoring, occupational therapy and security services.

Aranibar and Carpenter zeroed in on $2.7 million spent on consultants for risk management and employee benefits services. McGonegal defended those fees and the others in a Herald guest column in April.

All this unrelenting criticism and unsettling lack of faith cannot be ignored in McGonegal's surprise announcement this week. His pending retirement exhibits all the hallmarks of death by a thousand cuts.

The lowest point occurred this past February when an upset McGonegal went public by exposing executive session opinions of Aranibar and Carpenter. Both voted against retroactive teacher pay cuts after expressing the opposite view in private.

The superintendent accused the two of "playing politics," an uncharacteristic reaction for someone widely known for his implacably positive attitude. But considering the history there, who could blame him for lashing out?

Carpenter, possibly the next board chair when the vote occurs in November, has expressed the desire for a more collaborative and less contentious relationship with the superintendent. But now McGonegal only has six months left on the job.

With Harry Kinnan retiring and a new school board member coming on board in November, McGonegal faced the daunting and strong prospect of being on the wrong end of 3-2 votes, likely another consideration in his retirement decision.

Over the past few years, McGonegal's biggest challenge has been turning around Manatee's poor ranking on standardized student test scores -- 47th in the state. McGonegal addressed that issue with his appointment of Bob Gagnon, the successful Manatee High principal, as assistant superintendent for curriculum in January.

Then in March the superintendent eliminated six administrative positions to improve communications and improve school performance. Those changes, while praised by most board members, have not had time to impact test scores yet.

Gause indicated McGonegal has been plagued by migraine-like headaches for several weeks, but the cause is unknown. His pressure-packed position and very difficult decisions -- and as a lightning rod of criticism -- must be considered.

His health and his family are far more important than this job. We wish him well.

Moving forward, the next superintendent should have a strong background in both school leadership and the classroom, someone with the deft communication skills to deal with the likely micromanaging board majority.