Most of us who have worked for school districts, corporations, and businesses, accepted these positions with an obstructed view of the big picture and expended our energies focused upon narrowly defined tasks. By contrast, CEOs are asked to grasp all aspects of their organization’s responsibilities and to make needed adjustments.
For one reason or another over the past 20 years, none of Manatee’s school superintendents have demonstrated the willingness and ability to see the big picture and the skill to adjust variables to our advantage. This shortcoming has contributed to our current deeply entrenched problems. People keep asking me how things could have gotten this way. Let us see what the district’s recent history tells us.
Author's disclosure: I was hired by Dr. Denisar in 2000, worked in the Manatee District for three years for Dr. Nolan and one year for Dr. Dearing.
Dr. Gene Denisar (1994-2000) came closer to getting his arms around the district’s problems than people realize. Recognizing that our high school facilities had been sorely neglected, he upgraded them. Dr. Denisar fired some administrators who were merely along for the ride. Understanding that a credible fiscal operation was key to a sound operation, he built a stable district around this credibility. Contrary to popular belief, he inspired many to do well. Not needing to be loved, Denisar ruled with an iron hand and developed grudging respect from many within the district. While only a few years away from bringing the big picture into focus, he was ousted in a palace intrigue by unhappy board members, who placed their own comfort and thin skins above district progress.
Dr. Dan Nolan (2000-03), long-time district employee, was recruited off his patio, where he was enjoying retirement. Much brighter than the average bear, Nolan had a better grasp of the district’s big picture than anyone. Two circumstances prevented him from reassigning and firing personnel to bring the district close to peak efficiency: (1) his reluctance to dismiss and demote employees, and (2) his waning strength because of a serious illness, undiagnosed at the time. He saw what needed to be done but did not get around to doing it.
Dr. Roger Dearing (2003-09) brought a secretive style along with him from Vero Beach. Consequently, whether he saw the district’s big picture or even cared whether he did, was unclear. What was apparent is that he had litigious tendencies which cost the district millions and provided distractions from concentrating upon student achievement. After running off a highly skilled CFO, he got what he wanted in Tim McGonegal, whom he could intimidate, and the movement to intermingle funds which were supposed to be kept separate shifted into high gear. For six years, there was no shared vision and little learning among administrators in the downtown office. As a result, there was no comprehensive district picture, big or small, but rather disconnected flickers of activity.
Dr. McGonegal (2009-12), whose selection as superintendent will perhaps rank as the all-time worst board decision in a district which has become known for shaky calls, took the helm. Had they chosen anyone but McGonegal, the new superintendent could have called for a comprehensive audit, not a “laser focused“ one as the special interest advocates wanted later on, then he could have properly blamed McGonegal for the broken budget and gotten a fresh start.
After aiding in the selection of McGonegal, Dr. Dearing could be forgiven for chuckling as he left town. Because McGonegal was complicit in creating the budget problems, he was able to do a good job of burying them, until the predictable implosion, which occurred three years later. It would not have happened that soon had Linda Schaich, local fiscal activist, not persisted in asking penetrating budget questions, which initially went unanswered but eventually became the basis for audits.
McGonegal had no vision, no big picture, and no administrative rhythm. Instead, he spent his time doing favors for friends, putting out fires, ignoring audit recommendations and budget questions, and shuffling money irresponsibly among accounts. Inevitably, things fell apart.
Enter Mr. Rick Mills, our new superintendent. A good listener and a believer in systematic approaches, he understands the importance of grasping the big picture. Mills has both an advantage and a disadvantage in taking over a district with thin or non-existent policies.
As an advantage, he can develop his own policy for adopting charter schools, so that the impact upon enrollment can be gauged. To date, each charter application has been treated as an isolated case, with no bearing upon the big picture. Consequently, the district finds itself facing school closures and a mini-charter district with insatiable demands. No one at Manatee has yet has been able to get their arms around the entire district, certainly not a board which routinely fails to treat items within context.
While setting a fast pace, Mills will soon flesh out the big picture, which is only a preamble to getting the job done. Because staff positions have been filled by friends and relatives for almost ten years, he faces enormous challenges in whom to fire, reassign, and retain. In most districts, the newly hired are trained by savvy veterans, but in our case, we have few qualified trainers and many needy trainees.
Preliminary impressions suggest that Mr. Mills will easily grasp the big picture within twelve months. The great unknown is the ability of current and newly hired employees to coalesce, so that our central office business can be done in an efficient, orderly manner. Can Mills devise a formula for Manatee success? Probably, but can he train and recruit the employees necessary to get the job done? It may be several years before we learn the answer to this last question.
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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