It appears that after former Manatee Technical Institute Director Mary Cantrell filed to run for the Manatee County School Board, she and MCSD Superintendent Rick Mills had discussions about the possibility of Cantrell returning to her old post. The idea that the administration would broach that subject in the time between the expiration of Cantrell's contract and the August 26 race could raise red flags if such conversations can be seen as having a strategic purpose.
In April, Cantrell was informed that she would not be renewed at MTI for the 2014/15 school year. The move was described as a consolidation of Cantrell's position with that of adult career and technical education director Doug Wagner, who would essentially perform both roles, saving the district significant money as Cantrell was earning a salary of $108,000.
Shortly after, Cantrell decided to run for a seat on the school board, citing her dismissal as a factor in that decision. This week it was revealed that text messages between Cantrell and Mills alluded to discussions in early July regarding the possibility of Cantrell returning to the helm at MTI.
On July 2, Mills and Cantrell met for lunch. The superintendent has been meeting individually with each school board candidate to discuss district issues and get their perspective on the district, and such was supposedly the nature of this meeting, a common practice among administrators. However, it seems that in discussing Cantrell's feelings about MTI, the two also discussed the possibility that she might return to her position next school year and agreed to meet the next day to discuss the matter further.
Texts exchanged between the two later that day show Mills texting, “... let me know your answer tomorrow” and then “... looking forward to hearing from you in the morning … hope it is a yes (with a smiley face icon).” The next morning and prior to the meeting, Cantrell responded in a text, “Yes, I want to be Director of MTI if you can make that happen. I want to be a good soldier for you.”
At some point in that afternoon's meeting, someone other than Mills is alleged to have said that Cantrell would obviously have to drop out of the school board race were she to come back on, which she refused. A couple of weeks later, Cantrell signed an affidavit swearing that Mills did not ask her to drop out of the race or offer her old position in exchange for doing so.
Nonetheless, it doesn't really seem to matter. Policy would prevent Cantrell from holding both the administrative position and a school board seat, so her dropping out would be somewhat implicit with any such discussions, which is why it doesn't seem appropriate that any level of conversation about Cantrell returning should have taken place in the time between her filing to run and the election itself.
Mills has said that he was simply gauging Cantrell's interest, but there are a couple of angles that further muddy the water. Cantrell is running against board chair Julie Aranibar, who was one of the votes in the 3-2 decision to hire Mills in early 2013 and has been one of his biggest supporters. Because an exit from the race by Cantrell, who is seen as Aranibar's biggest competition in the four-person race, would seem to improve her chances of retaining it, critics have already accused Mills of trying to execute a backroom election deal. Perception matters and someone of Mills's rank should know that.
While Cantrell's exit from MTI was described as a consolidation, she nonetheless departed under a cloud of sorts with the books being deemed “inauditable” on more than one occasion by the district's internal auditing firm. There were also questions as to whether MTI was incorrectly charging fees to students and whether the district would have a financial liability, as well as rumors of improper use of district credit cards by MTI staff. The results of an external audit scheduled for this summer have not been released or scheduled to be presented to the board. All of this would seem to suggest that discussions of Cantrell's return would be premature and unnecessary at this time, particularly while she's involved in a school board race.
Also, despite leading the district through an impressive turnaround both academically and financially, Mills is in a position of tremendous vulnerability. His contract allows for him to be dismissed without cause at any time, via a simple 3-2 vote of the board and 30 days notice. A vote to amend the contract to require a unanimous vote without cause, or 3-2 with cause – the norm for such a position – was voted down 3-2 earlier this year. Suffice it to say, Mills has reason to suspect he has less than full support from the board.
There are also a lot of people in the Manatee County good old boy club who are displeased with the way Mills has replaced the entire top tier of leadership with outside (albeit more qualified) talent. Even the district posting historic improvements in test scores and improving its rank in the state from 40 of 67 Florida counties to 37, all while executing a nearly 20 million turnaround has not tempered that. Those forces have not been quiet in their desire to see a new board replace him after this year's elections, and ousting Aranibar would obviously be a factor in such Machiavellian maneuvers. All of those things further muddy the perception of discussing Cantrell's return while she's running.
No one can blame Mills if he feels like the success he and his team have overseen has not brought the sort of support they might rightfully expect. However, even the impression of meddling in school board politics smells enough like the old way of doing things that it could serve to undermine his administration's credibility with both teachers and taxpayers. With Cantrell remaining in the race and having signed the affidavit, nothing seems likely to come of the matter. I would, however, hope that the administration learned a valuable lesson on the importance of keeping district politics at a distance, because perception quickly becomes people's reality.
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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