Manatee County School Board must be up to challenge in selecting new superintendent

The Rick Mills era as the superintendent of the Manatee County School District is officially over. Tuesday, the school board accepted his request to advance his retirement date from July to immediately.

During his two years at the helm, Mills led the district back from the brink of a state takeover due to extreme financial mismanagement and budget deficits under previous administrations. Now the district enjoys a fund surplus in line with state mandates, a balance of $18 million.

The next superintendent will also face fiscal challenges but not on the same scale. Possibly higher.

A public campaign to convince voters to renew a half-cent sales tax for capital projects looms as the district expects student growth to compel the construction of new schools. Other fiscal difficulties are on the horizon, too, even a request to raise property taxes.

Moving forward, the school board owes this community positive leadership that focuses on educational excellence. Personal and political agendas must be buried in the pursuit of student achievement and teacher excellence.

The selection of a new superintendent gives the board the opportunity to demonstrate unity in the single goal of a school district, education.

That the school board undertook additional leadership training last week indicates a cultural problem exists, something keenly known in the community.

A respected consultant, Barry Banther, led the Friday's training and instructed board members on something lost in the hiring of Mills: "We have to be able to do the hard work to be able to define the culture so the (superintendent) candidate has a reasonable idea of the culture they are working in. It is a lot of hard work to find out what the culture is."

That's the hard lesson here. Two years ago, the school board hired a superintendent to repair a financial train wreck. He did.

But Mills, as a Manatee County outsider with a background in school administration in Minnesota and Chicago and a no-nonsense military service as an officer, hit a buzzsaw here. A cultural one, as Banther described without having to name names.

Mills' commitment to integrity, his dismantling of the good old boy network and his less than diplomatic public and administrative contacts alienated too many influential people. He lost the school board's support over this, and decided to retire instead of endure board opposition to his agenda.

The next superintendent must hold to high standards on all levels. The school board must, too. The district cannot return to the old days.

Named the interim superintendent on Tuesday, Don Hall, the former deputy superintendent of operations, told the school board and public that leadership unity and a focus on children should be central. That has been sadly lacking -- on the board.

In a very gracious statement, Hall endorsed his fellow deputy superintendent, Diana Greene, in charge of instruction, for appointment as the next superintendent. Greene was a finalist for the job when Mills got the job.

Halls' comment won applause from the audienc -- because Greene has won admiration for her success in academic leadership and student achievement improvements. The school board should be listening.

Hall also made one telling statement: "Children first, politics second." Whether the board took that to heart will be seen soon enough.

The district needs to move forward, not backward to the old days. The next superintendent should be free of the past and be free to build a new institutional culture free of politics and focused on students and teachers.

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