Rick Mills was not the easiest choice the Manatee County School Board could have made in selecting a new superintendent. A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army who has spent the last 12 years building an impressive resume helping to turn around public schools in Chicago and Minneapolis, Mills is not your typical school administrator, either on paper or in person. However, he was the candidate who had demonstrated the best skill set to tackle the considerable problems the district now faces. Kudos to the members of the board for making the first of what could be many difficult decisions to get Manatee Schools back on track.
In the interest of disclosure, let me note that I served on the 24-member citizen advisory committee which vetted the initial 29 applicants for the position. We recommended five candidates for the board to interview, which they accepted, voting 3-2 to also add a sixth. As such, I had the opportunity to sit in on and even participate in many of the one-on-one interviews, always disclosing my dual role as a member of the press. The candidates also interviewed with the advisory committee and with the board as a group, the latter of which were televised and all of which were public. Over the nearly two months of the process, I got quite familiar with the talent pool.
In the initial vetting, Mills seemed like an intriguing, if nontraditional candidate. He had served as both an enlisted soldier and commissioned officer through an impressive military career. He graduated from West Point and returned years later to teach, as many career officers do while pursuing their own higher education. He broke into public education when he was tapped to oversee military high schools and JROTC programs by current US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, back when Duncan was CEO of Chicago's public school system.
Mills made an immediate impact and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an area superintendent of 26 high schools and 18 middle schools in the city. His continued success saw him recruited as the CEO of the Minneapolis public school system, where he also produced impressive results, building a reputation as someone who was effective at quickly assessing systems, improving efficiency by dumping costly and ineffective programs, and embracing new technologies that could jump-start stalled departments.
“You look at every item in the budget and ask why it's there,” Mills explained in one of his interviews. “And if it's not producing results, you need to ask why you're paying for it.” Mills said that too often, districts have contracts for software or services that are both expensive and ineffective, yet remain in place, simply because someone decided years back that it would be a good idea and then never bothered to track performance. In a district that has a hard time answering taxpayer concerns over millions of dollars in contracts for consultants and other vendors for which little justification has been articulated, Mills' message resonates deeply.
All six applicants who were invited to interview proved to be excellent candidates, and I am certain that each had the potential to be a fine superintendent in most districts. But Manatee County's current predicament presents the need for a very specific skill set. In this regard, two candidates seemed head and shoulders above the rest – Mills and Kathryn LeRoy of Jacksonville, an assistant superintendent who had been passed over and politicized when that district made a change at the top. Both had a stellar record of success, and perhaps more importantly given Manatee's fiscal disorder, each had far more experience than the other four finalists in terms of district-level finance.
Ideally, a superintendent shouldn't need to come in with their level of expertise in that arena. But in Manatee's particular situation, the new superintendent was not only going to have to be able to follow along on budgeting, trusting that competent systems and administrators were in place. They would also have to be able to oversee the implementation of a completely new set of processes which could prevent the sort of systemic breakdowns that have landed the district in a multi-million dollar shortfall. In this capacity, Mills stood tall above his counterparts, which was known prior to interviewing. What wasn't as clear, was that Mr. Mills would also demonstrate such a strong grasp of classroom-level strategies.
While LeRoy may have edged the Colonel in classroom and curriculum acumen, Mills brought more demonstrable success in achievement. Ultimately, the gap between the two in finance was equal to or greater than the difference wrought by LeRoy's advantage in instruction-related areas. My guess would be that for most board members it likely came down to an intangible – faith in a candidate’s potential ability to steer a ship through very choppy waters.
Taking the helm of an organization like Manatee Schools isn't something you can express on a spreadsheet or aptly depict in a job description. The district is broken. Many of its deep and systemic problems are the result of a patronage system that has been in place for decades, in which friendly faces are shell-gamed through positions and everyone who's done enough for the cause ends up with a cushy job downtown, while those who are dismissed are typically limited to employees who run afoul of the ruling elite.
A district that is 47 of 67 in terms of academic ranking, despite spending considerably more on per-student funding and entry-level teachers than many of the schools ahead of it, can ill afford to have so much of its suddenly-diminished resources eaten up by having its headquarters serve as a soft place to land for the loyal and well connected. Manatee County Schools is going to need the sort of overhaul that not many chief executives would have the stomach for, and I would hazard to guess that the selection of Mills speaks to that.
Those who followed the process will have noted that it was Dr. Diana Greene, an assistant superintendent in Marion County, who finished with the second most votes from board members, not LeRoy. While Dr. Greene was indeed a talented and dynamic candidate, there was no escaping the fact that her area of most limited experience was in district-wide budgeting and financial oversight, where she was not nearly as strong as LeRoy or Mills, both of whom were able to do a much more succinct job of communicating their vision for things like system-level budgeting, reporting, auditing, and the relationship between the superintendent and finance staff.
Dr. Greene's strong suits definitely seemed to be in curriculum, along with the implementation of strategies to improve early learning and help close achievement gaps, though here again, they are areas where one or both of the other two demonstrated more experience and/or tangible success. Despite very strong support from members of the African American community and local Democrats who lobbied board members for her selection, it seemed clear that Dr. Greene was the third best candidate.
Third best of 29 in a field that included Mills, LeRoy and even Florida's Interim Chancellor of Public Schools, Pam Stewart, is of course nothing to sneeze at. And while age was not disclosed, I took Dr. Greene to be much younger than the other finalists, suggesting she might have the highest ceiling of them all. Her supporters also had the benefit of pointing to the fact that previous superintendent Tim McGonegal had himself been a Finance Director prior to taking the post, and that his tenure proved disastrous for that department. Nonetheless, the majority of the board members were not in office when McGonegal was hired. And any board facing the sort of financial quagmire this one is, that did not pick a person highly-experienced and skilled in that arena, would have a lot of explaining to do were things to again go sideways.
In the end, Mrs. LeRoy probably would have been the easiest candidate to select – a highly-qualified compromise, if you will. After the interviews, one got the sense that such was likely to be the case, and I still felt as if she had a majority of second-place votes at the selection meeting, were a second vote needed. But the unique depth and specificity of what ails Manatee Schools required an equally unique solution at the top. Of three very qualified candidates who seemed to be in serious consideration, Rick Mills was the best match given the challenges the district currently faces.
Ultimately, talented teachers and great principals are what deliver excellent students. The right superintendent is one who can make decisions to ensure that those people are in place, while skillfully managing the vast litany of other operations so that the financial resources afforded to the education of our children get to where they are intended to go: the classroom. Mr. Mills has demonstrated an ability to do just that elsewhere, and if he can create the same culture of accountability and shared vision of success here, Manatee Schools will be headed in the right direction.
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. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.
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