EAST COUNTY — If you follow Rick Mills’ words and demeanor, you could feel like you’re on the sidelines of a football game at West Point Military Academy.
Mills, the new Manatee County Schools superintendent and former military man in his 12th year of public education, uses words such as stakeholder, teamwork, strategic, change and winning.
He likes to command the conversation and, when he’s not, he fiddles with his hands, anxious to inject his presence — and it’s big.
Not overly tall or wide, he towers over the room with his blunt assertiveness, making long-range proclamations, like he did when he coached football players at West Point.
In his first two weeks on the job, Mills, the former CEO of Minneapolis Public Schools and director of Chicago’s JROTC program, has made decisions that speak to a man in control.
In his first move — one in the works before Mills formally took over — the district announced it will eliminate 188 staff positions for the 2013/2014 school year in the aftermath of a $3.4 million budget deficit. The change addresses non-conformance with state class-size requirements.
The cuts, including the elimination of 95 teachers, plus custodians, teacher aides and speech therapists, mostly likely will be absorbed through the district’s average yearly 200-position attrition rate, the number of staff who retire or leave the district on their own accord.
“I want to say, as a new superintendent in your first board meeting, that’s definitely something you don’t want to be challenged with,” Mills said. “But I would ask people to understand that we want to be strategic in moving forward with the cuts and minimize layoffs as much as possible.”
More bottom-line strategy was behind Mills’ second move — when, one week after he hinted at an administrative shake-up at his first board meeting, he delivered it.
At his second board meeting April 8, the School Board unanimously approved Mills’ new organizational chart that will replace assistant superintendent positions held by Bob Gagnon and Scott Martin with two deputy superintendent positions, confronting what he calls an “understaffed district at the top.”
Mills said Manatee County is staffed (administratively) at 40% of the level of Minneapolis Public Schools, though his new district has 11,000 more students.
Martin agreed to move to a staff attorney position, a job he held before his assistant superintendent tenure began in 2011.
Mills also announced he will eliminate the positions held by Executive Director of Elementary Schools Joe Stokes and Executive Director of Secondary Education Jim Pauley, replacing those jobs with three new ones: an executive director of elementary schools, executive director of middle schools and executive director of high schools.
Those three new executive director positions will report directly to Mills.
The pay for the jobs is undetermined but should be higher than the jobs they replace.
Administrators can reapply for their jobs.
Mills hopes the increase in pay and the prestigious titles of the new jobs will attract more talent to the district.
“I firmly believe that at the senior level of the district, we need to be creating opportunities and positions and titles to get the most highly qualified, capable people to the district,” Mill said. “I’m also a big believer that organizations benefit from blended leadership experience from both internal and external factions.”
The cost of new positions will be compensated somewhat by reducing the salaries and benefits of other administrative staff.
Still, Mills expects the new positions to cost the district an additional $140,000 a year in salary increases, a number that might change based on a adjustments to the pay scale agreed to April 8.
“Being candid and upfront, there is a small additional cost for these positions, but I’m offsetting that with a commitment and understanding that overall salaries in staffing will be reduced for next year,” Mills said.
Mills says both big decisions came from listening to the community.
The first week of April, Mills toured four district schools in a quest to identify their needs.
Each week until the end of the school year, he will visit another four schools, until he gets a complete picture.
“All too often in education, from what I’ve seen, community engagement tends to be, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Mills said. “I want outside input. Part of the next three months is to get my hands around what is working, what we should keep sustaining, so we’re not coming in and making wholesale changes that don’t need to be changed.
“You can’t wait months to make decisions and implement some level of change,” he said. “If you’re a fan of going from good to great, I have to make sure we have the right butts in the right seats.”
The School Board, a group David Gayler, former interim superintendent, couldn’t make cohesive, will approve any additional staff shuffling.
Gayler predicted a two- to three-year timeline for Mills to set common goals with the board.
Mills believes he can beat that calendar.
“It’s not like I haven’t been in that situation before as a leader, being able to build trust and cohesion,” he said. “I go back to my military days. We all have to be in same foxhole and have each other’s backs. It’s my job to bring that unity of effort, and I will.”
The first opportunity will come at an April 20 superintendent/board workshop, which is open to the public.
The man with a long-term plan knows he can only go as far as the people who hired him.
He’s made a commitment to live and stay in the area after he retires.
His wife, a school teacher in Chicago, will move here this summer, when the couple will close on a home, possibly in Riverstrand.
Mills, who moved roughly 15 times in the military — and again for his education career — is happy, at least for now.
“What would make me content?” Mills said. “Being the best.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rick Mills pushed for nepotism and fraternization policies, which passed unanimously April 8. They prohibit relatives and romantically involved people from supervising, hiring or promoting each other. Individuals who enter into such relationships must report them to management within 48 hours. Most districts in Florida already have such a policy.
Mills thinks the district can save money by closing underutilized buildings, as well.
“We have a large MTI campus that can look at opportunities for cost savings,” he said. “We have schools that are very low in capacity and utilization of space. If you can do it in one building instead of two, you can have huge savings. But you can’t just go out and close schools. You have to be very deliberate and strategic get community support around it.”
Mills also said teachers and staff had not received salary increases in years, and he plans to look for ways to start “addressing some of the hard issues people have faced over the years.”