At his first school board meeting Monday night, new Superintendent of Manatee Schools Rick Mills said he was humbled by the overwhelming reception he's received from his new community. One place he has not, however, enjoyed a warm welcome is in the local press, who have gone to great lengths in order to drum up controversy where none exists.
From Saturday morning to Monday evening, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune released no less than three pieces on Mr. Mills, two of which were solely dedicated to whether the bullet points on his 100-day entry plan Powerpoint contained thorough enough citations of credited work. Seriously, I'm not making that up. Keep in mind that this was after the paper sent a reporter to Minnesota to shadow Mills for four days as he completed his exit as CEO of Minneapolis Public Schools.
The Herald-Tribune has not really covered Manatee County in earnest for quite some time, which is a shame because there have been instances when pointing its considerable resources in Manatee's direction provided the only critical perspective available. But in recent months, major issues have often come and gone without even being covered, let alone followed up by multiple opinion pieces.
When the county commission rammed through an opaquely-deliberated decision to renegotiate the county administrator's contract at a cost to taxpayers upward of half a million dollars, the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper was curiously silent. So its keen interest in vetting the county's new superintendent, and the critical position it has taken in doing so, is a little bit perplexing.
Like the Bradenton Herald, the Herald-Tribune had largely given the previous administration a pass right up until the moment former superintendent Tim McGonegal acknowledged publicly what some board members and many taxpayers had suspected for quite some time: that the math the district was using to show a reserve, even as revenues plummeted and administrative expenses grew, simply didn't add up.
In fact, just hours before McGonegal announced the multi-million dollar budget shortfall last September, the Bradenton Herald had published an editorial admonishing first-term board members Karen Carpenter and Julie Aranibar, even going so far as to blame the “early retirement” McGonegal had recently announced on their “micromanagement” of budget issues. Of course he wound up resigning once he fessed up, but to Carpenter and Aranibar's credit, neither spiked the ball with an I told you so. They just set about trying to find solutions to the problems, including an impressively open and thorough search for McGonegal's replacement.
The Herald-Tribune's coverage this weekend also positioned Aranibar and Carpenter as “renegades” whose distrust of McGonegal preceded that of the general public. What such a summation ignores is that Carpenter and Aranibar didn't merely wander onto the dais. They won elections – and they did so without the support of the local political establishment and with both of those newspapers endorsing their opponents.
What the mainstream media clearly didn't recognize then – and apparently still fails to grasp – is that beyond the echo chamber of the local political elite who so often seem to have their ear, Manatee's deep and systemic problems were a surprise to very few. From a state audit that revealed an illegal health care fund deficit and questionable transfers from capital outlay monies to the general fund, to a broken "promise" on what a half-cent sales tax would accomplish, Manatee citizens have had plenty of reasons to demand change.
With the 2012 election of Dave “Watchdog” Miner – who also defeated a well-financed, establishment candidate endorsed by both publications – it seems that the board has finally swung in the other direction, away from the rubber stamp policies and intellectual disinterest that facilitated the previous administration's follies, and toward real and meaningful reform. Meanwhile, those newspapers have continued to endorse the same old board members who have enabled such imprudence with their unwavering "support" of a failed administration, while tarring the ones who ask tough questions and demand accountability.
Enter Rick Mills. Hiring an outsider who possessed no allegiances and owed no favors was surely part of his appeal. But the greatest challenge the new superintendent will face is not an anti-government mentality or people who oppose paying a good wage to hard-working teachers as one of the stories suggested. In fact, the most consistent complaint I've heard at Manatee County School Board meetings over the past several years related to the money that was being spent on an administration that continued to grow in expense, even as revenues plummeted.
Taxpayers were tired of resources being diverted from the classroom to support a patronage administration where nepotism and quid-pro-quo politics trumped meritocracy time and again. Why have teachers not received a raise in years, when we continue to add layers of costly administration which never justifies itself through results was heard more than a few times during the public comments portion of board meetings, though I don't once recall a citizen outcry to cut teacher pay.
What Manatee County voters have been telling the district since 2010 is that the problems are much deeper than any mess you'll find on its spreadsheets. From a look at the reader comments that followed the articles, the Herald-Tribune's readership seems to be echoing that call. It would appear the taxpayers are content to give Mr. Mills room to work. Considering they were last to the scene when the previous administration crashed into the wall, the local press might consider doing the same.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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