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Manatee School Board Puts on a Clinic in Good Governance


This week, the Manatee School Board made the difficult decision of choosing a new superintendent. Despite the challenges that the relatively inexperienced board faced throughout the process, the result was a refreshing example of good governance.

When Cynthia Saunders announced that she would be retiring at the end of her contract, the board promised the community a national search that would involve the public. In terms of process, board members definitely followed through. However, as is often the case in the search for a top executive in a large and complex organization, there was not a clear consensus by decision-making time.

The thoughtful and public manner in which the board deliberated this week demonstrated a commitment to a community commensurate with the considerable investment Manatee County taxpayers have made in public education over the past decade.

Florida s countywide school district model makes the search for leadership inherently more difficult in a number of ways. Foremost, it creates an enormous organization that is often, as is the case here in Manatee, the largest employer in the county.

Aside from reducing the disparity in resources by pooling a county s collective school property taxes, the model can also scale support services. However, this not only creates enormous budgets that must be efficiently managed but also creates similarly oversized logistical operations. The superintendent is essentially the CEO of a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.

Unlike heading up other billion-dollar entities, however, this position is uniquely bifurcated in a way that makes acquiring the requisite skill set both difficult and uncommon. On the one hand, you need someone who understands the classroom side of things, which is, of course, the district s primary mission. That said, if someone cannot effectively oversee the finances and logistical operations, it can be devastating to the classroom mission, as we know all too well here in Manatee County.

If that were not enough of an ask, the superintendent is also the face of the district, both to the community and the thousands of employees who make things happen on a daily basis from teachers to principals and other administrators, to nurses and maintenance technicians, to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, and so on. Ideally, you want someone who has both the skills and charisma to build a culture of excellence among employees, someone who can rally the troops, so to speak. You also want an effective communicator, skilled at messaging to a large and diverse community.

After the board narrowed the field of dozens of applicants to three finalists, there was not a consensus as to who among them best represented that portfolio of talents. In fact, it seemed as though the board saw each of the three candidates as being the best in one of the categories, and I felt the same way after evaluating the finalists.

Scott Schneider, the Chief of Schools (one notch below a deputy superintendent) of Duval County was definitely the most polished finalist and the easiest to imagine building a strong rapport with the public. He is an excellent public speaker who has a strong presence. Put more simply, at first glance, he was the person most likely to strike you as a ""leader.""

However, despite an excellent resume, he had the least amount of experience of the three in terms of the top levels of administration. There was also the matter of a scandal currently playing out in Duval, and while there has been no indication that he will be implicated, the matter clearly made board members a bit uncomfortable.

Doug Wagner has been the Deputy Superintendent of Operations for Manatee County Schools since 2018. Wagner brought the most experience on the operations side and has the advantage of having gained considerable institutional knowledge of the district. However, he does not have the background of the other two candidates when it comes to the curriculum side of the equation. Given that the district currently has a vacancy for director of curriculum and has not had consistency in the position for a couple of years now, there was good reason to weight that element even more than normal.

Wagner has a reputation as being a very nice person and, for the most part, is very well-liked within the district. However, some board members did not feel that his skill set was conducive to the top spot, a place where much tough medicine sometimes needs to be dispensed. In this sense, while there are indeed advantages to having many years of relationships with district staff, there can also be disadvantages.

Board member Mary Foreman may have put it best when she said that she thought Wagner might be ""too nice,"" and that he sometimes doesn t like to say no to people, which can be a problem in a position like this. I agree with Mrs. Foreman s assessment. In fact, when Tim McGonegal rose from district CFO to superintendent only to bring the district to the brink of financial ruin in 2012, the most common thing I was told from sources within the district was that his problem wasn t incompetence or corruption, but that he was too nice and didn t like to say no to people.

That s not to say that Wagner would have done the same thing, but it does suggest that temperament is a valid concern for such a demanding position. It is also useful to consider that while there are advantages to promoting from within an organization, done too often it can lead to a sort of institutional rot if the old ways of doing things are not consistently challenged with new ideas from the outside. In this sense, it is worth noting that three of the past four superintendents the district has had have been promoted from within.

Dr. Jason Wysong, the Deputy Superintendent of Seminole County Schools and the candidate the board ultimately chose brought the strongest resume. He is the number two administrator in a large and successful district. He holds a Ph.D. and two master's degrees, and has broad experience in curriculum development, as well as finance and logistics. That said, his presentation was a bit, well & milquetoast, for lack of a better term. In other words, he was not the sort of charismatic candidate that most often charms boards.

Nevertheless, several board members most notably Richard Tatem conveyed that Wysong s stock rose considerably during his one-on-one interview with board members. Tatem, a retired Air Force officer, spoke of ""quiet confidence"" and the way that his military career had imparted the lesson that sometimes gravitating toward the most magnetic personality could backfire.

What was most impressive about the process to me was the way it played out in real-time for the public to witness. There was the consideration of punting and delaying the selection or hiring an ""interim"" superintendent, which I think was rightly discarded as a potential betrayal of the public. There was also thoughtful, professional, and courteous debate among board members even when they disagreed.

In the end, a difficult decision was reached with the sort of trepidation that one of such magnitude will often include. Leadership often means knowing that even when you do not love the options at hand, you are still responsible to act. Throughout this process, our school board in which four of the five members are serving their first four-year term, no less demonstrated a level of professionalism and leadership that has been scarce in Manatee County in recent years, to say the very least.

Despite multiple scandals throughout the past decade, Dr. Wysong will inherit a district that has solidly improved its educational standing thanks in no small part to the strong and steadfast commitment to public education that the residents of the community have demonstrated even when district leadership has failed the taxpayers. He is well positioned to take the district to an A rating and, given the unfortunate challenges facing Sarasota County Schools at the moment, it is no longer impossible to imagine our district becoming the envy of the region.

What s more, as the Manatee County Commission continues to fumble through its second county administrator search in as many years after failing to meet its commitment to the public on both counts, its members would be well-served to watch Tuesday s school board meeting while taking copious notes. The stark difference in approaches would be instructive as to what representative government is actually supposed to look like.

Dennis ""Mitch"" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.


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