Following three interim superintendents, Mr. Rick Mills will soon take the reins as superintendent of the Manatee County School Board. Lieutenant Colonel Mills must be made of good stuff. During my Army hitch as an enlisted man in 1961-63, I recall how few fellow enlistees were even considered for Officer’s Candidate School, and not a single one who was tabbed for West Point. Consider the following an open letter to Mr. Mills, which poses many key questions he will face in the daunting assignment of breathing life into our district.
Since Manatee has lacked transparency and sound budgets for years, many employees have been compromised in trying to do their tasks. Under these circumstances, who can he trust? Will be bring in some of his own people?
Despite the district’s many difficulties, our school board members, too often with their heads in the sand, want to move forward without cleaning up several messy budget and personnel situations. Its budgets do not balance and its personnel are often unsuited for their jobs. How will he interact with a board which has been complicit in causing many of these problems or at least allowing them to fester?
The public currently has little confidence in the board or district to manage its schools. For example, voters passed a 2002 Sales Tax bond issue predicated upon a series of promises, most broken repeatedly. Will he try to regain the public’s trust without a thorough Sales Tax audit, for which the Sales Tax Committee has pleaded?
Superintendent McGonegal and the interims have consistently failed to provide status reports, with the federal Race to The Top grant being a prime example. Our RT3 project is rumored to have problems, and the district has done nothing to dispel omnious speculation. Consequently, public confidence in the project has eroded. Is Mills prepared to place RT3 and all similar issues in the sunshine?
Manatee is one of 67 Florida school districts, many of whom spend a portion of their time learning from one another. Most, if not all of our district’s recent learning has been on an intramural basis. Meanwhile, same-sized Sarasota clearly manages its budgets and its personnel better than we do and would probably be glad to assist us. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that we study their practices. Will Mr. Mills be humble enough to seek help from our neighbors?
More so than most Florida districts, Manatee has fallen in love with charter schools. Almost 10 percent of our students are enrolled in charters, yet our district has 6,000 vacant student stations. The board has no plan for distributing or counting students equitably and has made no preparation for school closures, which will be inevitable if charter school enrollment continues unchecked. Does Mr. Mills have any enthusiasm for developing a student enrollment plan?
In a digital age, our board meetings are mostly speaker-centered and print-driven. Our board meeting room screams for a lighted electronic map of our district which is adjusted to each discussion and a screen which lists relevant talking points. These aids would help administrators and the board to get their arms around the district’s problems; no one has yet emerged with the ability to do so. Will Mr. Mills choose to accommodate those of us who are visual learners?
The district has gotten itself into a bad posture by asking employees to perform tasks for which they are unsuited. The need for replacing and retraining existing employees is obvious, while many of them are betting that their jobs are safe because the district’s problems are too big for reform. How will Mr. Mills make wholesale personnel moves and still keep the district’s engine running?
The MCSB could do him a big favor by generating a to-do list. It is time for the board to lead, rather than continue to follow superintendents in docile fashion. No matter how good Mills is, it is going to take an outsider a while to sort through our personnel and to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Welcome to Manatee, Mr. Mills!
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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