Let’s start by getting this much straight: I have lived here for 27 years, consider myself a Floridian, and love our state. However, I would be the first to admit that Florida would have to score high on any eccentricity scale. Among other things, our state is beautiful, but disjointed; wealthy, yet penny-pinching and naturally blessed, but environmentally profligate.
We have turned voting, which should be a straight-forward process, into low comedy. Florida recently drafted a sitting US Senator, Bill Nelson, to catch Burmese pythons. We have a governor who flaunts his power by taking $1 billion from public education one year and replacing it in the next, and who steals early voting days before one election and vows to replace them in the following cycle. Problem created, problem solved -- though he tends to take credit only for the second half of the process.
Governor Scott teases us simply because he can, not because his actions make sense. Our governor and legislators placated an influential state Senator by giving him not a highway or a building, but an instant university, Florida Polytechnic (Lakeland), which his district’s residents are not crazy about. The school will not be fully accredited for years, and the state can afford it, only by draining funds from the other eleven cash-strapped universities.
Though Republicans run the state, Democrats have more registered voters. Some suggest that the wild card in this political party struggle is the Republican’s Tea Party faction, a movement which is a mix of conservative, libertarian, and populist policies. Many local Tea Party organizations are guided by the ten-plank Tea Party platform of Ryan Hecker, including strict adherence to the Constitution, spending limitations, health care repeal and tax reductions.
Even if the national organizations’ influence is on the wane, as some suggest, many local chapters, such as the Manatee Tea Party, are robust and proud of their accomplishments. With regard to school improvement, the MTP has fused a series of policies from the national platform into one which could be called “better school management.” Linda Schaich, Peggy Martin, Mike Becks and others have worked for three years in attempting to get the Manatee County School Board to correct numerous budget errors. For their pains, they have been insulted, ignored, and otherwise mistreated.
These three were finally successful in helping to force an independent school audit report, which was presented last week, though unfortunately it was not at all the comprehensive treatment citizens reasonably expected and the MCSB desperately needs. More persistent than most anyone I have observed, Schaich continues to analyze the school board’s budget problems. On Tuesday, I attended a Tea Party meeting with forty-five of its members, where Schaich, Becks and Martin were scheduled to speak.
This is what I heard: Schaich explained that the independent audit covered only one of the eight funds at the MCSB, the General Fund, which controls 55 percent of the district’s $550 million annual budget. Unwisely, the board has seen fit to commingle funds, so as to confound easy analysis.
Schaich presented dozens of examples of budget shortcomings, most of which she has been citing for the past three years. Despite claims to the contrary, the Health Care fund is still woefully short and the Sales Tax fund badly mismanaged. She spoke of facing a stonewall and being labeled a detractor, tactics which seem to make her all the more determined. This concerned citizen also echoed my sentiments about charter schools (now 10 percent of our enrollment), explaining that their enrollment proceeds without controls, despite overbuilding with our construction budget, and has resulted in 6,000 vacant student stations in our public schools. Schaich suggested that the recent independent audit is merely a timid first start.
Mike Becks followed with a historical perspective of the past three years in our troubled district. Peggy Martin addressed widespread nepotism in the central office, when she described the clique running the schools. During Q&A, Schaich predicted a “bloodbath” in the 2014 board elections when insiders will try to regain control of the board, which now favors reformers 3-2.
Like other successful tea party chapters, Manatee has developed its own personality and staked out special projects, with K-12 public education being one of its priorities. Imagine how many of our millions could have been saved and/or better spent if the warnings issued by these three had been heeded!
At least, Schaich, Martin and Becks have been able to drag the Manatee School Board’s shaky operations out of the darkness. Rather than attempting to do just enough to satisfy a skeptical public, board members would be best advised to give them their full attention. After all, this intrepid trio has cited hundreds of problems during the past three years and has not received a single challenge on their data analysis or conclusions. To their peril, the administration and some current and previous board members have nonetheless been dismissive of their work. Seeing how that's worked out, one must ask – why not bring them under the tent?
by Richard Jackson
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.