In the wake of a central office collapse that had been eight years in the making, the Manatee School Board's top administration is reinventing itself with three administrators, one from within Florida with a suitable academic background and two from outside Florida without classroom experience. Because of the unique nature of the district's profound challenges at the time, going outside may have been unavoidable. However, the district should be doing everything it can to see that future leaders are groomed from within.
After the 2012 implosion, it became painfully obvious that the district's problems extended far beyond its toxic budget. Since Dr. Nolan's departure in 2003, the central office learning culture deteriorated, mostly because of Dr. Dearing's guarded style and Dr. McGonegal's quick shuffles. Those working in the central office hierarchy and others serving as school principals learned Machiavellian tactics, but not the proper methods needed to manage teachers and students.
Consequently, when Mr. Mills arrived, he was greeted by clusters of administrators, several with secrets to keep and many with lean skill sets. Because neither Mr. Mills nor Mr. Hall had taught in public school classrooms or were familiar with the Florida mode of administering public schools, both spent much of their first year learning the rhythms of Manatee and Tallahassee. They also faced a plethora of additional problems, from high-profile employee scandals to revelations that the books were in even worse shape than previously known.
There is no time like the present, however, in addressing the leadership culture in ways that could reduce the chances of our district ever finding itself in that most undesirable position again. If the district is to not only survive its current challenges, but thrive in the future, it would be best served to formulate policies and practices that promote the development of future administrative leaders from within the ranks. Many districts accomplish two goals in this area by forming a top-future-administrators development corps: (1) it identifies and nourishes local talent, and (2) it constantly reviews and upgrades district policies.
In Manatee, this corps would consist of select central office administrators and school principals, meeting occasionally in the central office on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning. I have observed that districts most successful in using this method form this group by invitation only and with the participants' right to refuse the invitation. Thus, a support unit is formed with a size and composition the superintendent is comfortable in managing.
Extraordinary circumstances prompted Manatee to go outside for new top leadership this time, but few would want to do it again, because the learning curve challenges of top administrators cost us valuable time. The school district should make it a priority to cultivate and promote from within. One of Mr. Mills's evaluation metrics could well be the extent to which he develops future district leaders. To underscore the importance of doing so in a large organization, look at how Manatee County's CEO, Mr. Hunzeker, snookered the county commission by neglecting to groom his successor.
A retired educator with two earned doctorates, Richard Jackson has taught from sixth grade through graduate school. He has extensive experience as a grants writer, school administrator, columnist and lobbyist. He has written more than 300 columns over the past three years on the state of the Manatee School District for the Tampa Examiner.
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