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Superintendent on Cuts: We're Overstaffed and Standing on a


BRADENTON -- Superintendent Rick Mills has made himself hyper-available for public questioning following an announcement that the district will eliminate 182 teaching positions. At a series of “Soup with the Supe” Q&A's throughout the county, parents have routinely expressed unhappiness with a loss of teachers. But the retired Army officer met questions head on and defended a plan that he says will finally put the district's financial house in order.

Mills was only in his 69th day as superintendent when he met with parents and other taxpayers Wednesday at the Renaissance on 9th, for the third such event. He'd hoped to build confidence by explaining his recent administrative reorganization and explaining how the district was realigning expenditures to create fiscal stability, while focusing investments on classroom success.

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Superintendent Rick Mills

However, it was classroom size and teaching reductions that were on the mind of most in attendance. One parent from Anna Maria Island Elementary even presented Mills with a petition that she said contained the signatures of more than 1,300 parents imploring him and the board to find a way to balance their budget without eliminating teachers in the classroom.

Mills explained that the district is required by the state to have $10.3 million in a reserve fund to ensure that it can sustain unforeseen catastrophes such as damage from a hurricane. He said that the district has not been in compliance with reserves for three straight years and that the fund is currently sitting at zero. However, Mills said that the austerity they have put in place and cuts that the district has imposed will have reserves completely funded by this July.

“My job is to get this district fiscally stable and sound and we will by July of this year,” Mills told the audience.

Mills said that outside analysis confirmed that the district was under-enrolled and overstaffed and that they discovered they could eliminate the positions while still remaining within the state's required class-sizes. Parents complained that the district had not done a good job of ensuring they got rid of “the right teachers,” but while Mills conceded that the district's method of evaluating educators was broken, he explained that options on cuts are limited by union agreements.

“In terms of selecting teachers who were not renewed, we had to start with first year teachers, who are hired on a one-year contract," explained Mills. "Then we had to move to second year teachers, and in cases where principals had to make drops and there were not first and second year teachers to select from, they had to use discretion and make difficult choices.”

Mills said that hiring teachers at the beginning of the year and then not funding them in the budget was part of what led to the budgetary disaster. “While many districts were ratcheting down their staff levels during the economic downturn, believe it or not, we were actually adding staff,” said Mills. By not renewing contracts at the end of the year, the district will be better able to understand its needs next school year and make any necessary adjustments in terms of hiring back displaced teachers, as opposed to being on the hook for a full year's contract, only to find out later that it was unnecessary.

The superintendent acknowledged that the district was dysfunctional in many other areas and said it suffered from a near complete absence of standardized processes and measurable goals from which to assess which investments were paying off and which should be jettisoned. He said that the districts needed to use data and metrics that were actually aligned with performance goals so that they could not only create a plan, but adequately measure its effectiveness. After visiting 245 schools in the district, Mills described an environment in which mentorship and professional development for new principals were non-existent, leaving the district woefully inept at developing leadership, but promised that through administrative reorganization and the new senior level personnel he'd put in place, that culture would change.

Mills said that the cuts were painful, but warned that the consequences of not making necessary changes were potentially much more grave. “If we don't take extreme measures, we are in danger of being taken over by the state – just on the fund balance alone,” Mills told the audience. He then asked that they focus on the fact that despite the fiscal challenges that had been created by years of mismanagement, the district will be sound by July.

“I didn't create these problems,” said Mills, “but I own them, and it's my job to fix this school district.”


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