The Manatee County School Board may be a tattered institution that's earned the current mistrust of its constituents. However, years of rubber-stamping an administration that was more focused on protecting its fiefdom of high-paying patronage jobs and the sway that came with the lucrative construction contracts and consulting gigs it awarded, ultimately led to a shake-up that once seemed unimaginable.
In the wake of the financial mess that only began with the revelation of a massive healthcare deficit, and ended with the revelation that millions of dollars that had been shell-gamed to show a giant surplus, were actually a mirage papering over a giant shortfall, there is now the opportunity to move forward in building an organization that truly serves its intended purpose – supporting the education of our community's youth.
With disaster often comes opportunity and the truth of the matter is, absent the sort of internal collapse the district experienced, the kind of top down reform that now seems entirely possible would have never been able to happen. The powers that be simply had too much juice for anyone to really threaten the status quo. The unfortunate reality is that when things seem to be going well, voters pay the least amount of attention. During the inflated boom years when the district was flushed with revenues and Manatee's population growth seemed infinite, much happened with few people noticing – and those who did had a very hard time getting others excited.
Going into 2010, however, taxpayers were beginning to raise serious questions about where their sizable investment was going. As property values plummeted and the decline of resources in the classroom became painfully obvious, people wanted to know why hundreds of millions of dollars couldn't seem to go very far. There was suddenly an audience for reformers who pointed out the bloated salaries downtown, the job redundancy, and the plethora of new schools despite thousands of empty seats. In that year's elections, Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter won election by running against the status quo.
Their dogged pursuit of answers amid an opaque institution may have earned them disdain and ridicule from some, but it was a beacon of hope to others. Dave “Watchdog” Miner had been defeated twice in trying to break the gridlock by winning a seat on the board, but by the 2012 elections had built a legion of supporters interested to hear his demands for transparency. In November, he was elected in a landslide. The reformers now have a three vote majority as well as the chair and vice chair positions.
When he won election, Mr. Miner told me that his primary goal was to help build a district that would be a model of transparency not just for Florida, but the nation. That might sound rather ambitious given the current state of affairs, but when it comes to government, sunshine really is the best disinfectant. Openness is the only thing that can even begin to restore the public trust at this moment, and while transparency was often lamented for its inconvenience in the past, one would have a hard time making that case in light of where a closely-guarded approach has landed this community.
When the budgetary disaster finally imploded, it was clear that many forces were poised to paper over it, while doing everything possible to maintain the status quo, even if it had to endure a few minor facelifts. But those efforts failed and many of the people who urged them are now gone, or headed toward the exit. The citizens have spoken. The teachers have spoken. The parents have spoken. The status quo – any version of it – is unacceptable.
The Manatee County School District will move forward and the best way to do that is to honestly attempt just what Mr. Miner suggested: build a model of transparency that redefines open government. Once that happens, the district may learn a simple truth of public administration: when resources are honestly directed toward the end goal in the most efficient manner possible, there is nothing that is inconvenient to have the public aware of. When public information becomes uncomfortable in public, it's a good indication that much has gone awry.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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