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Anger Over School District's Spending Cuts is Justified but Misplaced


Parents, teachers, students and taxpayers at large are understandably frustrated by the drastic measures being undertaken in order to remedy the school district's fiscal woes. But directing the angst at the people who were brought in to solve a long-festering mess, which had been largely ignored during the time in which it could have been more gracefully remedied, is not only silly but counterproductive.

There's an obvious dynamic at work. It's been more than a year since at least some of the previous administration became aware of the multi-million dollar budget deficit. But even last September, when the public was finally told that what had been announced as a giant surplus was actually an enormous shortfall, there wasn't much immediate reckoning.

The new school board got busy with an external audit to discover exactly how that could have happened and in conducting a national search for Superintendent Tim McGonegal's replacement. When Rick Mills took over just 70 days ago, he not only had to start from square one, but he had to do it having learned quickly that things were even worse than they had appeared.

Despite a stiff reception from the local media, Mills laid out an ambitious 100-day entry plan, an impressive amount of which he's already accomplished. The former Army colonel has completely reorganized the administration, bringing in two outside deputy superintendents with impressive resumes. Mills also put in place a long-overdue nepotism/fraternization policy, something that had been repeatedly ignored by the previous administration.

The superintendent took that fiscal hot mess I mentioned and turned it into a financial recovery plan that will see a zeroed-out reserve fund at its full $10.3 million balance by this July. He's also found millions of dollars in expenses to shed and assets to sell. Again, he's been on the job for 70 days.

As Mills noted this week, the school district is in danger of being taken over by the state just for the unfunded reserves – which haven't been at their required balances for three years. This is beyond a crisis.

The district's financial recovery has meant eliminating positions, including 182 teachers and 80 in administration. No one wants to see teachers lose their positions and every parent (myself included) favors low teacher to student ratios. But there's a difference between the school district you want to have and the school district you have – and the one we have has nothing to do with Rick Mills.

In simple terms, the school has more teachers than it needs to comply with Florida's stringent class-size laws. This is more than partly owed to the fact that it hired extra teachers on one-year contracts in recent school years. The fact that they did so without accounting for their cost in the budget was a contributing factor to the $3.2 million budget shortfall they later discovered. How exactly was the district supposed to renew such contracts once the true fiscal picture was brought to light?

Some critics of the cuts have made comparisons to other counties, noting that Manatee's class-size averages are higher. But again, student/teacher ratios even lower than what is required by the state are a luxury available to districts who have not run their fiscal ship into the ground. Until we eclipse our present crisis, which we appear to be doing at impressive speed, simply complying with the limits seems more realistic.

Obviously, you don't go through the kind of financial recovery we are facing without feeling some pain, but it's not really fair to blame the doctor for the taste of the medicine. I suspect that on Monday, when the district releases the findings from its recent audit by a team of outside administrators, it will be even more clear how dysfunctional things have been.

What I've heard from Mills as he's been out meeting with parents and other taxpayers this week, is a detailed plan to fix the things that have been long broken, one that will put in place a system that actually tracks and evaluates our investment in education and develop the sorely needed administrative leadership we have for too long lacked. Such ambitions do not come without cost, but it's difficult to listen to the plan and not feel as though things are going to improve quickly – even if there will be some pain along the way.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.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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