BRADENTON – The Manatee County School Board district 2 seat is the only one on this year's ballot that guarantees a new face on the board, as incumbent Barbara Harvey is not seeking reelection. In this race, Manatee High School teacher Charlie Kennedy takes on Manatee County native Rodney Jones.
The non-partisan race will appear on the August 26 primary ballot. School board races are contested countywide, meaning all registered voters in Manatee County can participate, regardless of their district.
Both Jones and Kennedy seem to be good candidates who, frustrated by the agonizing challenges which have plagued the district in recent years, have decided to try and do something about it. Both bring interesting resumes and intriguing skill sets.
Kennedy argues that as a career educator, he brings a teacher's perspective to the debate – one that has been sorely lacking. Kennedy says that he would work to make sure that students and classroom resources are adequately represented in budgets. He also says that he thinks that board members need to take a more hands on approach, entering classrooms more often and interacting with teachers and students to better understand their needs and concerns.
Rodney Jones is himself no stranger to the school district. Jones, whose mother was a career educator here, has a background in working with both students and administration through various at-risk programs, including as a clinical director at Manatee Glens and stints in residential delinquency programs in DeSoto and Hardee Counties. He says he is currently substitute-teaching within the district in order to get a better feel for how things are working at the classroom level.
In a recent METV debate (click here to watch), Jones very clearly seemed more capable of articulating a broad platform and came across as much better versed in the sort of complex budgetary and administrative aspects of the position. In contrast, Kennedy's campaign seems thin when it comes to offering more than that teacher's perspective, which seems to form the bulk of his platform.
While it certainly couldn't hurt to have a teacher on the board, that alone is not enough reason to elect one. In fact, educators often tend to take a myopic view of administration, which is indeed an incredibly complex array of overlapping logistical areas including things like debt load management, budgeting, transportation fleet management, food services, health care, construction services and physical plant maintenance, none of which career educators are likely to have much experience with.
The fact of the matter is that these areas tend to dominate the board's deliberations, which educational policy can be a relatively small part of. The implementation of the classroom policies the board sets is the work of high level administrators and school principals, who the superintendent, not the board, oversees. When it comes to the classroom, some of the most important work the board does is in ensuring that the entire house is in order, so that those people who actually do implement educational policy are not hampered by inadequate resources, as we've seen in recent years. You don't necessarily have to have taught in order to do that, nor does having taught indicate whether you will do it well.
That being said, Kennedy seems like an intelligent candidate, and I think he would be an improvement over the district's current board member, Harvey, whose blind trust in McGonegal and unwillingness to question the plethora of red flags that government watchdogs were continuously bringing to the board's attention has muddied her legacy. Remember, just months before McGonegal's financial house of cards came crashing down, she literally said at a public meeting that it was not her job to question the superintendent, only to support him. But while Kennedy looks like a step up in that regard, he hasn't been able to make the case that he'd be better suited than his opponent.
Jones's deep ties to the district and community, along with the commitment he has demonstrated by way of volunteering countless hours as a SAC committee chair at two schools, the NAACP's education coordinator, Headstart's policy committee chair, etc., speak to a lifelong desire to improve education in a community he has long been actively engaged in. Coupled with his financial acumen, this speaks well of his potential as a board member.
There's also the matter of diversity, which the board has seen a woeful lack of. Harvey was the first African American ever elected to the Manatee County School Board, which has for the most part been comprised of upper middle-class whites, who disproportionately seemed to come from Northwest Bradenton. African American employees as well as students have on too many occasions had reasons to feel, at best slighted, at worst discriminated against.
Manatee County has a checkered history when it comes to race and desegregation. The demographics of the district are challenging, with tremendous economic disparity across the geography of the county. Too many of the title 1 schools are dominated by poor minorities, and for too long they were an afterthought to a district that seemed to very clearly favor certain institutions over others. That has begun to change over the last two years, but a board without minority representation still seems like a step backward.
Race alone is also not a reason to elect someone, but as Mr. Jones has seemed to demonstrate himself as the more knowledgeable candidate with the broader skill set, his experience working with students and policy makers regarding strategies to improve that critical performance gap are noteworthy.
In all, Jones has made a very compelling case to voters and not only seems like the stronger candidate in the race, but also like someone capable of elevating the collective ability of the board by adding a strong dose of pragmatic intellect.
Tomorrow: Race Analysis: Manatee County School Board District 4 - Carpenter v. Brunner
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