East County — Manatee County School District administrators and board members talk a lot about a cultural shift that’s occurring.
It consists of more communication, accountability and action. There are no secrets. The leaders are always learning.
The tone starts from interim Superintendent David Gayler, who, even as reminders of the past turn up every day, refuses to look back.
Gayler, who took on the task of moving the district past a $3.4 million deficit from 2011-12 that caused former Superintendent Tim McGonegal to resign, ran a Dec. 4 budget workshop in which he announced the discovery of another $7 million of unbudgeted items.
He could have waited until Jan. 14 — when Navigant, a national consulting firm, will announce the results of its three-month investigation into what caused the financial mistakes — to say anything.
But Gayler prefers to communicate with his colleagues early and often, as he and District Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer find budget savings, while digging into any other losses from the past.
They do it so whoever reports for duty as the new superintendent in April won’t have that task. Still, as they work to make the transition easy for their future new leader, they know the past will guide the future — how, as School Board Vice Chairwoman Julie Aranibar says, the district should strive to hire a superintendent who comes from the classroom, not from the closed-off business world.
Aranibar hints at a past in which goals didn’t align and board members were left in the dark, a dynamic that’s changed under Gayler.
“With Dr. Gayler, I never once have gone to a meeting where something different is said than what he already told us,” Aranibar says. “He is consistent with all the people he communicates with. He deals with problems and he listens. He taught me we need to have an educational leader at the helm. I’m excited to start working in this new direction that he has guided us toward.”
With a new foundation in place, here are some issues Manatee County Schools will face in 2013.
Revitalizing the classroom
As Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bob Gagnon and Teaching and Learning Executive Director Robin Thompson readied to address the board about academic plans for the year ahead during a Dec. 12 workshop, everyone seemed relieved.
“It’s nice to talk about academics for a change,” Gayler joked.
The workshop served as another step to align goals, this time matching the board’s with the teaching and learning staff’s.
“That didn’t happen before,” said Karen Carpenter, board chairwoman.
Gagnon said half of Manatee County students don’t respond to the core curriculum, which is guided by the Common Core Standards, a nationwide guide that defines the knowledge and skills children and teens should possess before entering college.
In Manatee County, the standards are already implemented in kindergarten and first grade, and Gagnon says second grade will adopt them in 2013. Third- through fifth-graders also might have to learn by the standards this year.
The standards tell teachers what they should teach, so they avoid only teaching what they like and know.
It’s up to the teachers to teach them well, in a complex way that promotes creativity, Gagnon says.
Currently, Manatee County ranks 47th in the state and is labeled a “C” district.
Only about 50% of third- and 10th-graders in the district are FCAT proficient.
Gagnon says you could fill 15 school buses full of 60 kids each to show the amount of level 1 third-graders who didn’t perform well on the FCAT last year.
Even at Lakewood Ranch High School, an “A” school that Gagnon calls the district’s best, only 54% of students read at a high school level, according to Aranibar.
“Our performance is absolutely unacceptable,” Gagnon says. “No one is happy with it. But we have great teachers. Still, people need to learn new skills. Are we teaching the standards in ways that engage kids and encourage critical thinking? That’s what has to happen.”
To Gagnon and Thompson, change will come from new computer tools that allow for data sharing and instant results.
The new computer tools show teachers how each student performs on certain standards and it lets them compare the results to other teachers and schools.
When the teachers receive the results of benchmark tests, the system suggests new lesson plans, videos and other assessment tools for each standard.
Instead of saying a student earned a “C” or a “B” on a standard, the system is more specific about what is or isn’t happening. For example, it might say, “John can’t count to 10.”
“We don’t want to wait until the FCAT to know if kids are passing standards,” Gagnon says. “We have to have computer tools that link it together. We have to own data. We have to own these results. How do we hold ourselves and teachers accountable?”
District administrators can also have virtual meetings with principals, all of which are recorded.
Gagnon calls the meetings “a time and resource saver.”
Similarly, Gayler approved a TV/Internet cast recommended by Starloe Galletta, a drama teacher at Rowlett Elementary, called “Talking to Teachers,” in which teachers and administrators can share ideas for the classroom.
“This is about empowering teachers on the front end and back end,” Gagnon said.
The district also wants to get away from pacing, in which every student has to be on the same page on the same day.
Aranibar says her son, a senior at Lakewood Ranch High School, was limited by pacing.
“He got lost in the shuffle in all of it,” Aranibar says. “I don’t know if we’ve really gotten away from it.”
Pacing means sometimes slowing down, when some students are slower to learn, for example.
“If you can’t read by third grade, you’re always going to be behind,” Aranibar says. “That’s what Gagnon’s data shows. We’re at the point where public education doesn’t really prepare you for the real world when you do have to go out there and compete.”
Gagnon admits there’s a readiness gap, and he wants to address it before kids begin kindergarten.
Gagnon and Thompson proposed turning G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary School into a pre-K through second grade community-based school offering wrap-around, targeted intervention.
They also want to make Community High School a combination school serving eighth- through 10th-graders who have been unsuccessful with interventions at their home schools.
“No one talks about the readiness gap,” Gagnon says. “It’s always about the achievement gap. But we’re losing these kids early and we’re spending too much money on remediation.”
It’s about being proactive, not reactive, says Gagnon, a former teacher, assistant principal and principal at district schools such as Lakewood Ranch High School, Manatee County Summer School and Palmetto High School.
“If you’re going to lead, you have to produce,” Gagnon says. “We’re not moving fast enough for me and we probably won’t. Hopefully, I can do some good here and help it move quicker.”
To make financial decisions more clear and to avoid another catastrophe, Gayler has been working to install a line-item budget, for which every expense from each department, school and grant is listed, line-by-line.
He hopes it is in place by mid-January.
Gayler plans to take a closer look at utility expenses and find ways to save there, as well.
Carpenter says the board has talked about outsourcing non-classroom items.
She has suggested consolidating functions and selling off excess property, saving even more on utilities.
For the 2013 budget, Aranibar says the county won’t face any cuts from the state.
Manatee County will be funded at the same level as last year.
Gagnon wants the money to go to the classroom.
“If it were up to me, first and foremost I would prioritize raises for our educators,” Gagnon says. “Go to the staff — without question. Our educators have suffered through a lot in recent years. Unfortunately, for us to bring everybody together we have to stop demoralizing the people who count on us and whom we count on.”
Before the board can approve raises, Carpenter says it must better understand how to manage its money.
“We would like to give raises to teachers,” Carpenter says. “But we have to figure out how to have an efficient operation first.”
Aranibar says finding the money to reward employees and boost morale extends countywide, beyond schools.
“The community has been hit hard by the economy so they don’t want anything raised,” Aranibar said. “In that sense, the county and schools are on very much the same level. How do you balance? If there’s a better way to do it, we have to do it that way. We can raise the pay for teachers, but it will take a realignment of the entire district.”
Also this year, the Florida Auditor General will do an independent audit of the district, to make sure policies and procedures are in place to properly administer funding.
The inspection occurs every three years. The last three inspections exposed deficiencies, especially in managing capital, Aranibar says.
As Gayler tries to clean the slate for 2013 budget, residue from the past keeps haunting him.
At a Dec. 12 audit committee meeting, Manatee County School Board Attorney John Bowen stated Trenam Kemker, the Tampa law firm that helped choose Navigant, is billing beyond the scope of its work.
According to Bowen, the firm billed the district $39,000 as of Nov. 8, some for activities in which they shouldn’t have participated.
When Gayler leaves his position in March, Carpenter hopes he can make a unique imprint on the new budget.
“It’s good timing,” Carpenter said. “It wouldn’t be a good idea for that person to come in July when budget is already done. We want someone who wants to take the reins and show us his/her priorities and have influence over the budget. It’s an exciting time frame.”
Technical education and MTI
With its K-12 education in flux, Manatee County — and now, even more so, East County — can depend on its staple, technical education.
Doug Wagner, director of Adult, Career & Technical Education for Manatee County Schools, has made post-secondary schooling a priority with minimal funds.
The district learned Dec.11 that its grant application for the federal Race to the Top District Competition fell short, placing 22nd overall.
The U.S. Department of Education had enough money to fund the top 16 finalists.
Manatee County’s application, titled “Manatee County is F.I.R.S.T (Fully Integrated Reading Science Technology) in the Race to Student Success,” sought $28.7 million to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) education programming to every Manatee County elementary school, to provide teacher training for the program and to construct a “TECH” zone at the Manatee Technical Institute’s new East County campus.
Wagner and board members say the county can move on without the money as it prepares to unveil its new 210,000-square-foot East County Campus on State Road 70 and Caruso Road Jan. 8.
MTI has earned the most national medals at the SkillsUSA Championships for the past nine years, according to the district.
“It’s (technical education) still our flagship,” Carpenter says.
Responding to what he calls strong demand for digital media, manufacturing and culinary arts in a service-dominated region, Wagner has helped design new classes for the winter/spring 2013 semester, including digital video production, baking and pastry arts, and automotive collision repair.
The East County campus will also feature a precision machine lab, the first of its kind in the area, Wagner says.
“Our expectation is to have more East County residents participate,” Wagner said. “It gives them an opportunity right in their community to participate in state-of-the-art technical education.”
Aranibar believes the grand opening fits well with county government’s attempts to attract businesses to the area.
“Manatee County is sitting at right opportunity for economic development to tie this into a economic recovery that needs a skilled workforce,” Aranibar says. “When we see the commission doing everything they can to bring companies to our area, MTI offers a huge advancement to attract companies to come here.”
Aranibar got involved with Manatee County when her two children — twins set to graduate from Lakewood Ranch High School this year — started kindergarten.
Elected to the school board in 2010, Aranibar says the fall of McGonegal and the fast rise of Gayler have reaffirmed for her the importance of a superintendent as an educational leader.
“I’ve been a volunteer and advocate for the district and now that I’m set to send my children off during such a important transition, it’s bittersweet,” Aranibar said. “Whoever takes over has a great opportunity.”
In its brochure for the job, the district clearly communicates its desire for the next superintendent, who will make between $170,000 to $195,000, to be committed to clarity and openness, engaging the community in its decisions.
It also emphasizes technology and human relations.
Candidates have until Jan. 9 to apply to Dr. Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association. The board’s citizen advisory group will select its finalists Jan. 29.
Blanton expects 40 formal applications.
The school board will choose the final candidates Jan. 30, based on the recommendation of Blanton and the citizen advisory group.
Finally, the board will name the new superintendent Feb. 18 to Feb. 28.
Carpenter calls it the “biggest decision” she will have a say in as board chairwoman.
“The school board hires three people: the board attorney, the internal auditor and the superintendent,” Carpenter says. “This is where we will spend the most of our time. It’s time we rebuild that community’s trust that’s been shattered.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
Superintendent search timeline
Jan. 9 — Application deadline
Jan. 29 — Superintendent finalists to be selected by Dr. Wayne Blanton and the board’s citizen advisory group
Jan. 30 — School board selects its final candidates
Feb. 4 to Feb. 15 — Superintendent finalists interviews
Feb. 18 to Feb. 28 — Superintendent selected
March 6 to April 1 — Superintendent reports for duty