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Guest Column: Neighbors United for a Better Education


For the past 46 years, I have been a volunteer in the Manatee County School District. In that time, I feel as though I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. What follows is a call to action of sorts, regarding one way in which the community might act in concert to ensure that the colossal mistakes of the recent past are not repeated, and that the tremendous potential of our local educational system is developed in full. 

Presently, our district is experiencing the worst financial and operational crises in its history and though hiring a new superintendent was the first step toward righting the ship, it will require the collective involvement of the community if we are to enjoy long term success. In a community of great, giving, and caring people we must ask how and why this has occurred and where to from here.

My volunteerism started in 1968, when as a young physician in town I volunteered to head a committee to train our new “to-be” emergency medical technicians. When Manatee County Government decided to have their own EMS program, the commissioners came to the Manatee County Medical Society seeking assistance.  

From that venture, I rapidly decided that my community service would be volunteerism in education. Now, 46 years later, I am still involved. My most recent activity has been as the chairman of the Citizens Advisory Group Superintendent Search Committee. Of all the committees I have had the privilege of serving on, this one impresses me greatly because it is made up of concerned, professional leaders in our community who have stepped forward to give of their time with the commitment to assist and make a difference.  

The CAG began as a committee, but very quickly became a highly professional “team” with a charge and mission to succeed in finding a superior new district superintendent. This committee accomplished that mission admirably.

That success serves as an example of what can be accomplished by intelligent, engaged citizens in our county when they come together for a common cause. In reviewing the history of progress in Manatee schools, I think I have a good perspective of where we came from, where we are now, and what is needed in a strategic plan to “put our ship back on course”.

For me a turning point was 2003. At that time, we had one of the finest superintendents in the history of our district – Dr. Dan Nolan. Dan spent the vast majority of his teaching career in Manatee. He had groun-up knowledge and expertise in education and came out of retirement in 2000 to accept the position of superintendent.  Dan had a vision.  He wanted to be a part of a school district of excellence that would be viewed a model.  

Dr. Nolan recognized that to do so we need top-flight, well-equipped facilities and the finest of teachers, treated with the utmost respect and understanding. He believed in high expectations and demanded excellence and accountability in the class room. Under Dan’s calm, quiet leadership, the voters of Manatee County put in place a 15-year half-cent sales tax to be used for capital purposes to assure that our district keep up with the demand for top-notch quality facilities as the county continued through unprecedented growth.  

The response was that we unanimously agreed “mission accomplished and well done.” At the time Dr. Nolan was superintendent, the relationship between he and the Board was collaborative, respectful, congenial and constructive almost to the point of being creative. There was tremendous trust, transparency and most of all, open communication. Life was good for our school district, its teachers, and most importantly, our children. The ‘corporate culture’ was nearly perfect and relationships collegial. Dr. Nolan retired in 2003.

Since Dan’s retirement roughly ten years ago, there have been significant and disturbing trends in operations, the performance outcomes of our school district and reversals of financial fortune. A recent forensic audit revealed budget deficits that continue to eclipse prior estimates, perceived needs relative to organizational focus, and perceived needs for improved communications and collaboration at all levels.  

There are very strong internal and external beliefs that strong actions are needed to improve transparency, renew teacher and overall employee confidence and respect, and offset behaviors that are felt to be dangerously close to toxic or corrupt. We must correct the facts such as reductions in staff salaries, mandated non-paid furlough days, a mandated 29 percent increase in health insurance, and an academic rating of 47 out of the 67 school districts in our state.

Our main assets are excellent facilities, excellent students, and talented, caring, dedicated teachers. Let’s build on that to define what corrective action can be taken.

We actually have many hopeful factors that we can build on. For the sake of ease, I’ll simply list a few:

1. Our teachers are among the best, and most have persevered because of their dedication and confidence that corrective action will eventually occur.

2. We have a school board that has excellent leadership in our present chair, Ms. Karen Carpenter. We have at least some board members who have proven themselves dedicated to the change necessary to put a vision for the district back in place, make the hard decisions that must be made, while demonstrating respectful, trusting behavior.

3. We have some of the finest facilities of any school district. For example, we just opened a new $44 million main campus for our Manatee Technical Institute – the largest single program in the district and 9 times National Skills USA champions. A true example of what can be accomplished when business, industry and education have a handshake and commitment to excellence, work cooperatively and with respect at all levels of the program.

4. We have just completed an intensive, national search for our new superintendent. The above mentioned committee reviewed 28 professionals who wished consideration, and after extensive evaluation narrowed our applicants to five. These were presented to the Board and now that the interviewing and selection processes have occurred – Mr. Rick Mills, the CEO of the Minneapolis public school system will be our new Superintendent. Many of us think that is a very constructive decision. Rick started on March 20.

Yes, Manatee as a school district is experiencing difficult times. However, as in the past, when we identify serious problems, we as a community come together and we solve our challenges, and we become stronger because of it.  As we go forward, we still have problems to be identified and will have some difficult news to deal with, especially regarding our financial realities. Yet, this too shall pass as we put  programs in place that will bring correction.

It is crucial for us is to realize that as concerned citizens, we need to become involved in suggesting initiatives and solutions and, once corrected, we must not allow our school district to return to such troubled times. To avoid that, I am convinced we must put in place a concerned citizens program that can monitor, demand transparency, and advocate for excellence. 

To this end, I am proposing that we form an organization of Neighbors United for Better Education. NUBE will be a not-for-profit organization that will support our school district to achieve educational excellence by: 1. Supporting student and faculty initiatives above special interests, and 2. Encouraging transparent, productive debate to arrive at prudent decisions that are financially sound. For, the success of our new Superintendent is our success as well.

If you are like minded and wish to become involved with NUBE, please download and fill out and return this form.


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