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Manatee County Residents: Pay Attention and Vote Accordingly


While children, we were encouraged to set lofty goals, such as becoming the President or winning an Olympic event. Most of us downscaled these goals along the way and as adults, settled for modest accomplishments, such as becoming part of a functional family, earning a good living, and establishing a healthy life style. Those who lost their focus drifted into empty lives often plagued by deceit and unhappiness.

It is also possible for governments and school districts led by distracted people to lose their way. Manatee’s government and school board have fallen into this trap during the past five to ten years. Manatee’s County Government has slipped so badly that the prime metaphor for our county’s business climate has morphed from tomatoes to phosphate. Note that in the process, we have shifted from an industry that feeds people to one that poisons its water. This juxtaposition packs a powerful, particularly unfortunate message. For an object lesson, drive through Bartow’s phosphate graveyard. Good luck in reconciling this reality with TV’s phosphate pipedreams!

Currently, the Manatee County Commission is seeking passage of a half-cent sales tax to fund the health costs of low-income residents, despite the existence of many provisions in the recently passed federal Affordable Health Care Act, which serve the same purpose. The commission is currently out-of-balance, with five commissioners leaning towards special interests versus Michael Gallen, as he channels the sorely-missed Joe McClash, and Robin DiSabatino, who understands that her first obligation is to her constituents.


One mile east on Manatee Avenue, the school board is up to its waist in alligators. Thrashing wildly in his last days on the job, Board Attorney John Bowen convinces no one as he insists that he has provided excellent legal advice. Meanwhile, intimidation which took root during the Dearing years (2003-09) has radiated into the schools and adversely affected a culture in which bullying and misdirecting have displaced adhering to laws and respecting one another.

Aftershocks from the board’s sketchy forensic audit continue to disclose bad fiscal decisions and costly errors. With a 3-2 reform-oriented edge on the board, this fragile majority is now working to gain traction. The school district, a gang that cannot count straight, has a new superintendent, Mr. Rick Mills, who has promised to get to the bottom of the district’s budget problems, as he continues to search for drills which are long enough. Unfortunately the catchphrase, “moving forward,” has become board code for going ahead while burying the festering sins of the past. If not corrected, these mistakes will surely return to haunt us all.

Knowing that I worked for the board from 2000-04, concerned citizens have asked me how difficult it is to balance a school district budget. I tell them that there is more involved than appears on the surface, because each revenue source, whether federal, state, local, or private, has its own rules and restrictions. I explain that school budgeting, nonetheless, is still relatively straight-forward if the accounts are kept separate and usually conclude my response by stating that serious complications arise when fund accounts are commingled and when yearly district budgets are closed before their problems are resolved. In the present MCSB situation, flawed budgets have been stacked on top of one another, year after year, so that it may now take a team of wizards to untangle this mess.

For a variety of reasons, five county commissioners and two school board members now serving have lost their way. Snuggling with special interests and a lack of transparency continue to be major contributing factors. Most of us are willing to concede that there will always be special interests affecting local decisions, but these influences cannot be allowed to run roughshod over us as they are presently doing at the county commission and as they have been doing for years on the school board. What we should not accept is arrogance from our elected officials, incompetence displayed by school board finance officers, and a lack of transparency in public dealings.

Our county is highly complex. Manatee is coastal, urban, suburban, rural, poor, rich, diverse, law-abiding and law-scoffing. We are proud, insecure, highly educated and educationally deprived. Our children compete favorably in sports, but all too many do not learn thoroughly and quickly enough to compete in the classroom, nationally or globally. We have a port, more than 100 mobile-home communities, mansions, condos, foreclosed homes, neglected homes on mean streets, sprawling farm fields, 739-square miles of land and 150 square miles of water. There are no more than 200,000 of our residents in county during late July but at least 700,000 inhabitants (residents and visitors) in February. Unique is an understatement.

We must elect public officials and board members who grasp this complexity and are eager to represent all 327,000 of our full-time residents, rather than playing to the well-organized, narrow-niche special interests that will forever linger, willing to support any candidate's success, so long as their vote is for sale. We must hire and elect those willing and able to understand the shape and texture of the entire county. Each of our residents, not merely the interest groups they have cultivated or joined, deserves the full consideration of our officials and boards and the ballot box is the best place for citizens to ensure that such is the case. Pay attention folks, and vote accordingly!

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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