Tomorrow marks the start of the 2013/14 school year. After years of disappointment courtesy of our local school board and administration, there is finally plenty to be excited about. The district's finances are still a mess, though a solid and viable plan to restore the fund balance and build reserves is finally in place. There's a new, highly-talented top tier and a focus on data-driven strategic planning that had been completely absent. Most of all, the district has begun experiencing a profound change in culture and the feeling that something very special is quickly spreading through the ranks.
Much was accomplished this summer under the leadership of new Superintendent Rick Mills, who came on board in June, only to find that his new district – which had been presented as a disaster – had probably been oversold. In fact, tragic catastrophe might have been a more accurate description. The finances turned out to be much worse than originally thought and nearly a month was spent identifying budgetary woes and coming to terms with the fact that no immediate way to impose a fix existed.
It's one thing to come into a district with a multimillion dollar deficit and poor performance metrics, but quite another to discover that the deficit is even bigger than you were led to believe and that there is a nearly non-existent system for tracking performance data and adopting strategic measures to address areas of poor performance.
Mills's mission: cut every penny that can be spared, while simultaneously addressing a multitude of poor performance areas – without spending money. The word impossible comes to mind and that's before a sex scandal, which occurred prior to his arrival, deposited an onslaught of bad press on the district, eventually claiming six employees, including two top administrators and three assistant principals – just days before classes begin.
This is the sort of situation in which many superintendents might reconsider their retirement options. Who would have blamed a man already retired from the army, had he decided to dedicate his daytime hours to his golf game – especially considering the attacks he suffered upon his arrival. But the Colonel's tenacity says a lot about why the board selected him for the job and also speaks well of their wisdom in making that decision.
Mills studied the district and quickly proposed an overhaul of the administrative hierarchy. He conducted national searches and brought in an all-star team from outside the district, including Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum Diana Greene, who was the board's second choice for superintendent.
Mills also brought on Don Hall to head up operations. A fellow numbers guy, Hall’s impressive grasp of district data and functions brings a refreshing change to board meetings, which are no longer mired down in I'll get back to you on that answers. The Office of Professional Standards, disgraced by a failure in the Rod Frazier case that saw its former director charged with a felony this week, finally received an experienced investigator who looks poised to change both the climate and quality of internal investigations for the district.
Mills has filled two of the three school director positions he created (one each for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools) with more outside talent, and most recently, the district hired Stephen Valley into the role of executive director of communications and family and community engagement. Valley is another credible and experienced professional with the resume to match the role – something that was sorely lacking under the previous administration, where questionable internal promotions created a culture in which few employees felt that the district was being led by the best and the brightest.
It’s been a busy summer. Mills who’s already been to every school, met with every administrator and been in front of every employee says that there has been no push-back to speak of. He describes a district that is “ready for change and transformation” after too many years of inadequate support from an administration that lacked experience, leadership and focus.
Considering where the district was sitting just a few months back, the idea that it has an executable balanced budget for this school year shows that the board’s faith in Mills’s strong financial background was well placed. On Monday, classes will resume without parents, teachers and students noticing the belt-tightening that he’s managed to keep almost completely out of the classroom. In fact, Mills and his team have already found a way to fund the extra hour of classes that will be required at five district elementary schools with the lowest reading scores.
Of the 182 teachers the district was forced by budget shortfalls not to renew back at the end of June, 69 have been hired back, while more than 40 have been hired by neighboring districts (Mills also explained that around 50 were not eligible for rehire). The superintendent says that the strategic plan will guide all decisions going forward – especially the tough financial ones. “If it’s not in the strategic plan, it’s not in the budget,” Mills explained. His team will be creating a plan to better develop new principals, including mentorship, a 2-year curriculum and an on-boarding program the summer before they begin their first school year.
Though he acknowledges that it will be two to three years before the district has the sort of discretionary funding to leverage technology and create some of the more innovative changes he has planned, the superintendent is clearly excited about the district’s progress. In the next couple of school years, the benefits of what is presently occurring could catapult Manatee County Schools into the upper echelon of Florida districts – a thought which would have been unimaginable this time last year.
Speaking to Mills, you quickly sense tremendous confidence that such will be the case. He's got the right plan, the right team, the right district, the right board. In his mind, all that stands between the district's current position and the ultimate success is the work and the will, which is to say nothing at all. A driven competitor, you can also see that he's grateful for the shot at such a massive turnaround, the sort of epic reform that wouldn't be possible had he not been handed such a total mess.
By the end of our conversation, it's difficult not to be excited about what the future holds. For now, the district remains something of a success story waiting to happen, which is still quite a bit more promising than anything we've been able to say in quite some time.
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