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Brunner and Cantrell Make Late Jump into School Board Races


BRADENTON – Just a couple of weeks before the qualifying period, what looked like a set field for the 2014 Manatee County School Board races received two more candidates. Outgoing Manatee Technical Institute Director Mary Cantrell and former school board member and Manatee County Commission candidate Frank Brunner will vie for the seats currently held by Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter respectively.

Mary Cantrell
Frank Brunner

While Aranibar had already drawn an opponent in Carlton “Les” Nichols, it had looked like Carpenter, who chaired the board through its transition to a new administration, would go unopposed. Cantrell and Brunner filed only a day apart and are running against two incumbents who have usually been allies on a notoriously-contentious five member board.

Carpenter and Aranibar were both elected in 2010. They quickly began to comprise a very vocal minority on what had largely been a passive board with a history of being quite compliant with the district administration under former superintendent Tim McGonegal. The two new board members ruffled a lot of feathers by questioning the financial information being presented and demanding to see more specific documentation than the broad and sometimes vague updates board members would typically receive.

The two mavericks were routinely chastised for their lack of “cohesiveness” with the board majority and accused of attempting to “micromanage” the superintendent. Their pursuits were of course vindicated when McGonegal eventually conceded that what the administration had been presenting as a surplus budget was in fact a multimillion dollar deficit, the depths of which are still being discovered and could soon end up totaling more than $30 million.

When McGonegal resigned, the district hobbled through three interim superintendents while it searched for his replacement. Both Carpenter and Aranibar supported the hiring of current Superintendent Rick Mills (with Bob Gause casting the third vote in a 3-2 decision), who came on board in March of last year. Mills replaced virtually the entire top tier of the administration, some of whom were non-renewed, others of whom were suspended indefinitely for their roles in the Rod Frazier student abuse scandal at Manatee High School.

While Mills's team executed a $16 million turnaround in a year that saw the district receive its highest standardized test results in half a decade, it's fair to say that it has not completely ingratiated itself with district insiders and the local political establishment. In addition to the suspensions involved with the Frazier case, which included four employees with ties to Manatee High School, the superintendent recommended a 10-day suspension and demotion for legendary Hurricane Football Coach Joe Kinnan, who was also the school's athletic director, for his role in the baseball booster club scandal.

Mills's contract allows the board to terminate him with 30-days notice – without showing cause – at any time, with a simple 3-2 vote of the board. Aranibar and Carpenter recently sought to have his contract extended by two years with the stipulation that the board would either have to show cause on a 3-2 vote or reach a unanimous decision to dismiss him without it. Their proposal was denied in a 3-2 vote with board members Bob Gause, Barbara Harvey and Dave Miner dissenting.

Cantrell, who first came on board as MTI's director in 1996, was rehired after retiring through the Florida DROP program in 2004. She was non-renewed for 2014/15 in what the district described as a cost-saving consolidation of the school's two top administrative positions. MTI, which opened a new campus in 2013, has come under fire in the last year for having financial books that were deemed “inauditable” by the district's internal audit firm and is currently under internal investigation by the district after an employee made extensive allegations of financial and ethical improprieties. An external audit is scheduled for this summer.

The late entrances of both Cantrell and Brunner have been seen as direct challenges to the administration, as each are going after a seat in which the incumbent has been supportive of Mills and company, and neither live in the district for which they are seeking election. Cantrell is homesteaded in Pinellas County, while Brunner is homesteaded in Palmetto, where his wife – an assistant principal at one of the district's middle schools – is also a City Commissioner.

Election rules do require that candidates reside in the district they are running for by the end of the qualifying period. Both Cantrell and Brunner have filed using addresses in their sought districts, though Manatee County Property Records list the homes as being owned by someone other than them. Residency requirements for elections, however, have historically been very loosely enforced in Florida.

Brunner, himself a Manatee High alum, served on the school board from 1996 to 2006, when he gave up his seat to seek the at-large Manatee County Commission post that was being vacated by Pat Glass. Brunner lost to Carol Whitmore in that race, who will also be on this year's ballot, as she seeks a third term for the countywide seat. Brunner is currently employed as the Executive Director of CrimeStoppers of Manatee County.

School board races are non-partisan and though the seats represent a specific geographical region and its schools, the races are contested countywide with all Manatee County voters eligible to vote in all races. They appear on the August primary ballot, and if no candidate receives a simple majority (at least 50 percent plus one vote), a run-off election is contested during the November general election.


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