If ever a school district needed a fresh start, it would be Manatee. Plagued for the last three years by publicly discussed yet unaddressed budget problems, an overmatched superintendent, and an inattentive board, the district imploded in mid-2012. Angry, puzzled residents are asking how things got this way. (Disclosure: I was the Manatee district’s lobbyist/grant writer from 2000-04, when I was fired by Dr. Roger Dearing.)
For many years prior to 2004, the Manatee School Board had established a reputation as a smooth-running school district, using experienced superintendents and strong fiscal managers as lynchpins. In 2001, the district was led by Dr. Dan Nolan, who had been lured off his patio, where he was enjoying retirement to serve as superintendent. Using an encyclopedic knowledge of the district and a finely-tuned sense of how to treat people, he led the district capably. Chief Financial Officer Jim Buckley, legally blind, but intellectually gifted, grasped the tiniest details and also the big picture.
In truth, there was not much for board members to do but visit schools and lead cheers. To their credit, our board members were highly visible, and the district moved forward. These officials, however, did not oversee fiscal operations and assumed that these matters took care of themselves. The board had become spoiled and careless. This group included Frank Bruner, Walter Miller, recently retired Harry Kinnan, and the presently serving Barbara Harvey and Bob Gause.
A seriously ill Nolan returned to retirement in 2003 and Dr. Dearing, determined to be the smartest person in the district, even if it meant running off skilled employees, took the helm. Buckley did not stay long and Tim McGonegal became CFO. Board members continued their hands-off fiscal policy as the district’s rapidly growing budget became more complex. McGonegal had neither the insight nor the integrity that Buckley possessed (few fiscal officers do), and Manatee’s money matters began to unravel.
Dearing moved on in 2009 and McGonegal was appointed superintendent. In his three-year CEO tenure, McGonegal was unable or unwilling to hire people smarter and more experienced than himself. Consequently, a bad situation got worse. CFO Jim Drake was able to hold the budget together temporarily by shuffling funds between accounts and ignoring external auditor warnings and district audit committee questions. Inevitably and noisily, the budget collapsed.
McGonegal resigned abruptly in September and interim David Gayler took charge. On January 14, the board was presented a superficial forensic audit report that dumped almost all responsibility upon the thinly qualified Drake. Rather than firmly-supported conclusions, the forensic auditor unfortunately offered a summary based primarily on assertions.
At present, the school district is a broken down vehicle on the side of the road, with an engine that will not turn over and a transmission that is shot. References by Dr. Gayler and the board to moving forward are just idle talk, until the superintendent and five board members “fix” things, which has to mean getting to the bottom of our problems. The MCSB-mobile at present is not going anywhere. If Gayler holds to his March 29 end-of-contract date, time is running short for him to “repair what is broken and handing it off like a baton” to the new superintendent (Bradenton Herald, 1-16-13).
Meanwhile, chair Karen Carpenter seems to be trying to whip the board into shape. She and Julie Aranibar, both in their third year on the board, can fairly be criticized for not more aggressively responding to Linda Schaich’s fiscal criticism over the past two years. When Carpenter and Aranibar did ask questions, however, McGonegal and board attorney Bowen stonewalled or tried to intimidate them.
Tribute is due new member Dave Miner for identifying the lack of specificity and depth in the audit presentation; his aggressive questions sorely needed to be asked. Julie Aranibar also should be complemented for citing the auditor’s problems with dates. Our board members have been treated like chumps for a long time, and these three are tired of it.
As Carpenter is clearing the wreckage, perhaps she will go all the way and have the district directors submit their resignations, so that the new CEO can form his/her own team. Presumably, the superintendent would choose to re-hire some of these administrators. As the board pushes for a fresh start, the community’s interests would be best served if Barbara Harvey and Bob Gause, both rooted in a troubled past, changed their ways or stepped aside.
Harvey, who gloried in the glitz of yesteryear, is clearly uncomfortable with current controversies, which will likely plague the board for some time. A special interests favorite, Gause backed Tim McGonegal completely, even when it was obvious that the superintendent was incompetent. Gause then “won” a tainted re-election in which the district's fiscal condition was known by (at least) McGonegal, but kept from the public.
Monday’s Harvey-Gause vote, proposing to retain the toxic Bowen through the end of June told residents all they needed to know. Should these two choose to remain, expect more foot-dragging and confusion. Carpenter is resolute in her efforts to give the new superintendent every chance to succeed. She deserves citizen support and the cooperation of four board members, not two.
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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