MANATEE SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE
What will be your priorities as a school board member? My first priority is students. The school district has made a dramatic financial turnaround in the past 18 months, however further cuts will have to be made. I want to make sure children are the last stakeholder to be affected by those cuts. My second priority is teachers. As a high school teacher myself, I understand the challenges of the job and what is required to be successful. Our district’s teachers haven’t seen a pay increase in years; in fact the cost of benefits is rising for teachers and the district. Once the school budget is back on solid footing, with the required fund balance and a budget surplus, I will advocate for a modest increase for teachers that is fair for them, and for taxpayers.
How will you accomplish those goals? I will accomplish these goals by being a school board member who does their homework going into board workshops and board meetings. I will foster good relationships among board members and with the superintendent’s leadership team. One of our current impediments to success is some of, what I perceive to be, the personality driven dynamics of our current board and the district leadership team’s relationship with the rank and file. I would like to make sure school board deliberations focus on students, and their safety and success. In addition, as a teacher I hear conversations about the leadership team which is not healthy for the organization. The superintendent and his team have had to make difficult financial decisions and have dealt with difficult personnel decisions. I will facilitate open communication between the leadership downtown and the teachers in the field to build trust again between labor and management.
In light of improvements in test scores, how can you as a school board member further improve student achievement and their education? As a school board member, I will be tasked with the oversight of budget spending items. Each spending item on the agenda must be studied and analyzed for the most cost-effective means to help students continue to make incredible gains they achieved in the latest state assessments. Upon release of the 2013-14 scores in June, students and teachers had much to celebrate. We must continue what has been effective, for example intensive reading and math courses for those who struggle with the FCAT. This will be, in coming school years, state-mandated EOC (end of course) exams. But the process is the same. Find creative, cost-effective ways to give students the support they need to be successful. For example, the extra hour of class time for schools with low reading test scores has had a positive impact. Yes, it does carry a financial impact on the budget, but as I said above, board members and district leadership must look at the cost/benefit analysis of that extra hour and determine if that is money well spent. I believe it is.
Which programs would you like to institute to accomplish that? I have said this from day one of my campaign: we must allocate maximum resources to early childhood education. Mountains of education research show the benefits of early education. It is successful across racial and economic lines. It is relatively inexpensive considering the educational gains that are achieved in later school years. In addition, there is economic benefit to our community as one study predicts a benefit of $8 saved for every $1 spent on early childhood education.
The district’s budget outlook for next year looks challenging though promising. The draft plan reaches the state-required reserve minimum. What are your thoughts on this budget and future district spending? I was in attendance at the school board meeting on Tuesday, June 24 to hear Mr. Hall’s presentation of the first draft of the 2014-15 budget. There was an air of relief, perhaps even celebration, in the room as Mr. Hall announced that we had not only achieved the reserve minimum, but there was also a surplus of $2.4 million dollars. Supt. Mills made the observation that the school district had made a financial turnaround of $17 million in just one school year. To achieve such a dramatic turnaround has required tough decisions to be made, especially around personnel issues, however our district has gone from a near takeover by the state to one that is now on solid financial footing, in just one year. Supt. Mills and his team of Dr. Greene and Mr. Hall should be commended for their professionalism and transparency in the budget process.
The 2009 sales tax bond issue remains up in the air with some $3 million unaccounted. Missing emails put an investigation in a tough position. What are your thoughts on this, too? Like many of the problems that are just now coming to light from previous years, I think it is time to move forward. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to find out where the bodies are buried, so to speak, so we can learn from our mistakes of the past. However, to spend more district time and resources to pursue dead ends should not be a priority for the district. Nor should we be diverting resources to support investigations to criminally prosecute our former superintendent and the former leadership team. More lawsuits and more investigations mean less money for students. We should not punish our students, who have no culpability for the sins of the past. To this point, on June 20 the Office of the Inspector General informed the district that no charges would be brought against our former superintendent. Supt. Mills and our board Chair have accepted that determination and I believe the taxpayers of Manatee County should do the same. It is time to look to the future, having learned from the past.
Besides the sales tax bond, audit after audit have exposed one problem after another. Is the district now heading in the right direction? Financial controls are now in place. The school district’s new email server system to be implemented with the 2014-15 budget (Windows 365) will ensure disappearing emails never happens again. Mr. Hall and his budget team have displayed competency and professionalism in their delivery of the new budget. As I said above, our district has made a $17 million turnaround in one year. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this is miraculous. Clearly, the district is heading in the right direction financially and, while the auditors should complete their work of uncovering the mistakes of the past, we can move forward knowing that we know have systems, and highly competent people, in place that will ensure this never happens again.
Public trust in the school board and district is still shaky, though improving. How can you further that progress? My experience as an educator in Manatee County will give the public trust that they have a classroom teacher on the board who knows what students and teachers need to succeed. Further, I don’t bring a particular ideology or personal agenda to the board. As stated earlier, I want to build consensus among the board, leadership team and the public. Education is filled with political land mines but, despite these, sometimes vitriolic, arguments, I’m sure we all want the same thing: for our students to succeed and our schools to operate efficiently. If we can remove our own egos, partisan viewpoints, and personality conflicts and focus on our number one priority – kids – public trust can be fully restored in our school district.
What concerns do you hold about the current direction of the board? Which direction should it take under your stewardship? My only concern regards the, sometimes, personality-driven dynamics of the board. I realize that board members don’t have to agree with each other all the time; however, as an observer of board proceedings, I sometimes feel there are personal conflicts that are getting in the way of conducting school board business. Even if a board member believes another to be wrong, or to be misusing the best use of board time, I believe each member should respect the others’ efforts and opinions.
Do you support the current administration, that is Superintendent Rick Mills and his deputies, Diana Greene and Don Hall? Why or why not? I do support Supt. Mills, Dr. Greene and Mr. Hall. For all the reasons mentioned above – our dramatic financial turnaround, the transparency of board deliberations and documentation, the budget and accounting professionalism and expertise shown over the past 18 months and the measured, educational gains that our students have shown. While students and teachers deserve much of the credit for those jumps in test scores, the district’s leadership should get some credit for putting resources, and the right people, in place to facilitate student achievement.
My only concern for Supt. Mills is how to rebuild trust between the leadership and the teachers. There is a perception among teachers and administrators that Mr. Mills has been heavy-handed in his personnel decisions and further, through investigations of school board employees. Whether or not these perceptions are fair is a matter of opinion; however we must deal with the reality that these perceptions are felt by teachers and administrators of the district. If elected, I would like to improve relationships among, not just our leadership downtown and teachers, but among all stakeholders in the school district.