BRADENTON – The Manatee County School Board district 4 race will see former member Frank Brunner challenge first-term incumbent Karen Carpenter. 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.
Brunner served on the MCSB from 1996 to 2006, when he left mid-term to run unsuccessfully against Carol Whitmore for the district 6 county commission seat that was being vacated by Pat Glass. He then took a position within the district, where his wife is also employed as an assistant principal. He is currently the director of Manatee County CrimeStoppers.
Brunner has come under fire for running in district 4, despite the fact that he and his wife are homesteaded and have long lived in district 1. Before running, Brunner signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment that he says he will live in full-time if elected.
There is no question that Brunner served on the board during better days for the district. However, his efforts to claim credit for successes and paint his opponent as responsible for the district's recent woes have often seemed, at best, disingenuous.
Neither Brunner nor Carpenter were on the board in 2008 when former superintendent Tim McGonegal was hired to replace Roger Dearing. Carpenter came on board at the end of 2010 and immediately made a reputation for herself as someone who was not going to swallow empty assurances to ongoing red flags in the district's finances. She deserves much credit for putting pressure on the administration that ultimately led to at least partial acknowledgment of millions of dollars in financial shell games, as well as McGonegal's resignation.
From 2010-12, Carpenter and fellow first-term board member Julie Aranibar found themselves on the losing end of a lot of 3-2 votes. Problems that were getting worse during that time were usually occurring amid their staunch opposition, while fellow board members continued to blindly trust an administration that seemed to abhor transparency (taxpayers now have a good idea as to why).
Since McGonegal's departure and the replacement of virtually the entire top tier of the administration, the district has been able to achieve a remarkable financial turnaround of more than $20 million, while simultaneously improving academic benchmarks. The stability and leadership that Ms. Carpenter provided while chairing the board through the most tumultuous year in its history – including two interim superintendents and the hiring of McGonegal's ultimate replacement – was no small accomplishment.
Carpenter was also one of the few board members who showed the will to stand up to former attorney John Bowen, who many saw as a Svengali of sorts, and essentially the power behind the throne while McGonegal was superintendent. Bowen's controversial tenure with the district saw taxpayers on the hook for multiple lawsuits in which the attorney convinced the board to take losing cases to trial rather than settle them.
Bowen was the highest paid employee in the district and managed to secure a contract so favorable, he proved too costly to fire when the board was considering his termination. His deep ties and strong alliances within the district and political community caused many on the board to avoid confrontation with him, and the fact that Carpenter was so willing to challenge Bowen, especially while chair, spoke to the sort of political courage that is too rare in modern politics.
The 2012 elections brought another new board member in Dave Miner, while veterans like Bob Gause and Barbara Harvey seemed somewhat humbled by how reckless their blind support they had proven. Led by the leadership of Carpenter and Aranibar (who served successive terms as chair), citizens have benefited from a level of openness and transparency that had been sorely lacking for too long.
The district was in pretty good shape in the late '90s and early part of this century, though some of the slip in academics, and according to recent audits, some of the financial shenanigans as well, had already begun before Brunner left the board. I'm not sure that he can be blamed for those things any more than he can take credit for earlier successes.
The district is currently in the midst of a remarkable academic turnaround, though again, it's hard to say how much of that is Carpenter's doing. For the most part, it's teachers and administrators who design, implement and inspect the sort of changes that lead to such success. Board members set policy, approve budgets and perhaps most importantly, decide who is running the district, while holding them accountable.
In all of those ways, Karen Carpenter has distinguished herself as a model representative for both the students and taxpayers of this community. Today, we are finally recovering from an economic disaster brought on by an inept administration. After an impressively public process of finding a superintendent, we have an administration whose resumes tower over their predecessors. The district finally has a nepotism policy that will help prevent the culture of connections that had so long plagued it, particularly during Brunner's time; and employees are being held accountable across the board, according to policy rather than politics.
Ms. Carpenter fought hard for all of those measures, which is what makes it so difficult to mount an effective challenge to her seat. Not surprisingly, Mr. Brunner has not seemed able to do so. Aside from largely irrelevant statistical comparisons, he's offered little more than political platitudes in terms of his plans for the district.
As noted, tying Ms. Carpenter to the challenges the district endured when she first arrived is not an easy task. Ironically, Bob Gause, who represents Mr. Brunner's home district, would have been a much easier target for such a campaign. Gause was elected in 2008 and chaired the board during McGonegal's worst offenses – while being perhaps his biggest supporter. The fact that Brunner decided to rent an apartment in another town in order to try to unseat Carpenter, rather than wait two years to challenge Gause, a close political ally, might say more about his positions than anything in his campaign material.
Karen Carpenter has served honorably over her first term. Her position is not a political stepping stone, nor is she the kind of representative who seems enamored with the status or recognition that holding public office confers. She has no potential conflicts of interest within the district. Everything seems to suggest that to her, public service is just that – serving the public in her community as a way of giving back. Mr. Brunner has not been able to make a convincing case as to why the voters of Manatee County should replace her.
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