The Manatee County School District has been a lightning rod for criticism and controversy for the better part of the last four years. Despite an impressive economic turnaround under its new leadership, the bad news keeps coming, as more past misdeeds come to light. However, despite bump after bump in the rocky road, the district will soon have its first budget with a positive balance in the last four years, and there are still plenty of good things happening in our schools. Under the circumstances, that seems like a pretty good record.
Yet to hear some people in the community tell it, we're worse off now than in the years that delivered us into our current mess. That seems counterintuitive, especially since so many of those loud voices were conspicuously silent while the previous administration shell-gamed millions of dollars in overspent monies and misspent other funding sources, which, as they are discovered, continue to siphon money from classrooms today.
For too long, the district was a quasi-patronage institution that prized loyalty to leadership over accountability to the public. Too many high-level positions were staffed by personnel lacking adequate credentials who were earning far more than their professional worth. To make matters worse, not enough effort was taken to shop the outside market for better suited candidates. Clearly, there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in such an environment, so when a crisis struck, leadership would circle the wagons and protect the anointed.
Of course that all came crashing down in 2012, and the district has found itself in scandal after scandal in recent years, but a big part of why you're hearing about them is that they are no longer being swept under the rug. From the continuous discovery of financial chicanery to sexual abuse cases and booster club shenanigans, the administration under new superintendent Rick Mills has built a record of dealing with every employee by the book, under the same standards and expectations.
It no longer matters whether a storied football program or its players or coaches are involved, or that an incident happened at the district's so-called “flagship school.” Discipline has been dealt out uniformly, through a prescribed process, while the academic success and personal safety of students has been restored as the paramount concern. This being a good thing, seems obvious, but make no mistake, there are influential people who long for the old way of doing things.
There's also the fact that change is hard. For many teachers and principals, there's a justified frustration that since they did not benefit from the fruits of the largesse, it is fundamentally unfair that they should have to pay its costs. Many others with skin in the game – like students, parents and taxpayers – have had a difficult time both in understanding the complex issues at hand and finding the right place to project their valid frustrations.
These are hopefully what we call growing pains. A very successful entrepreneur once told me that there's one good thing about growing pains and that's that you're having them. The statement was meant to infer that if you're not experiencing growth, you're in the process of decline. That same person also once told me that every relationship, whether it be a marriage, a business partnership or something else, is always getting better or worse; that they never stay the same. I've always felt that there is quite a bit of truth in both axioms, and I think it's a fair way to appraise the current state of our county's school district.
When Mr. Mills was hired, the board said they had selected him because they felt he was capable of cutting through that stagnant bureaucracy and had the temperament for surviving the fierce resistance that was sure to follow. They also felt he had the sort of deep understanding of financial issues and budgeting to oversee what they knew would be a long and difficult process of getting the fiscal feet back under the table. Several board members and citizens worried that he lacked the ability to give out a lot of warm and fuzzies, but ultimately felt that those other qualities were by far the most important.
It's hard to argue that they didn't get exactly what they were looking for. That hobbled upper echelon has been replaced by competent professionals and for the first time in a long time, supervisory roles are staffed by highly-capable individuals who have the resumes to match their job descriptions. The talent that was secured in the rebuilding of the leadership team was impressive to say the least. The fact that they have all been outsiders unaffiliated with the incestuous forces that conspired to bring the district to its knees is equally promising.
True, no one is going to accuse Mills of executing a charm offensive and in the hustle and bustle of trying to deal with the leviathan that is a large school district in crisis, there have been missteps in communicating ideas and policy proposals, and regardless of policy merit, communication is an important part of a public process. However, there has also been a transparency to the public and openness to the board that are even more important.
As a county resident who also has a child in the public school system, I'm heartened by the changes I've seen implemented and the work that is being done. I'm also wary of the motives of those who are trying to communicate a very different narrative and seem to be working to muck up the public perception of the current state of affairs.
Like I said, there are obvious self-interested reasons for many of the loudmouths in the conversation to attempt to derail the district's momentum. Some would probably like to run Mr. Mills and company out of town on a rail. They'd like to see another puppet administration put in place, because whenever you elevate mediocrity, those who benefit tend to know where their bread is buttered and are not eager to rock the boat.
Like most citizens in Manatee County, that's not the kind of district I want for the community, or my child. If MCSD is going to reach its potential and fulfill its mission of delivering the very best education possible to the young people of this county, it's not going to be because of the football teams it fields or the favors it trades. It's going to be because the quality teachers and principals we already have are supported by a community and administration that prioritizes the educational process.
There will surely be more growing pains to experience, and as the district continues to internally audit itself beyond the operational issues that have already hamstrung its coffers and into things like municipal bonding, there's every reason to believe that the sins of the past will continue to deliver more bleak news. We are in nothing less than an administrative nightmare to be sure, and what's needed at times like this is leadership and discipline – and support for it.
It might indeed get worse before it gets better, but putting off problems and trying to evade the pain of bad decisions is what got us into this situation. Blaming it on people who weren't even here when it happened and hoping they can go away and take the problems with them is both petulant and futile.
If the district can collectively put its head down and get behind a viable plan to move forward without getting distracted by all of the snake oil sales pitches and manufactured battles to be waged, I think we can become the sort of district our students, teachers, parents and taxpayers deserve. In the meantime, I'll take growing pains over painless atrophy any day of the week.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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