EAST COUNTY— As Paul Vallas, the first CEO of Chicago Public Schools, watched Rick Mills command a squadron at the U.S. Military Academy, in Fort Knox, Ky., he knew the lifetime military man should transition from serving his country to serving students.
Mills had never — and still hasn’t — led a typical school classroom, with desks lining the front of the room and children reading from textbooks. But, he taught five courses from 1999 to 2001 as a squadron commander.
But it didn’t — and still doesn’t — matter.
Mills, the new Manatee County Schools superintendent, had the big-picture, take-charge style suited to serve as director of multiple Chicago military schools in 2001 and the city’s renowned JROTC program, and, later, as area superintendent of 26 Chicago schools in 2009.
With a 4-1 vote Feb. 20, the Manatee County School Board assigned Mills, most recently the CEO of Minneapolis Pubic Schools, the task of restoring order to a district reeling from a 2011-12 $3.4 million deficit that spoke of unorganized, unstructured systems and rocked public trust.
Mills replaces Tim McGonegal, who resigned Sept. 10, amid the budget fiasco. David Gayler has been acting as interim superintendent since Oct. 15.
“I’m excited,” Mills said in a phone interview, the day after he was hired. “Many of the challenges here suit my style. I’m a transformative leader who can take the district to the next level. I’m about looking at an organization’s systems and structures and transforming them around effectiveness.”
Mills comes from urban districts with diverse student populations. School Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter calls Mills a progressive leader.
“We are weak in structure and adhering to policies and procedures,” Carpenter said. “Rick will provide some law and order. At first, I was uncomfortable saying, ‘Here’s another white male.’ But he’s interacted with so many types of people with his background.”
Manatee County will be getting a leader, who, now in his 12th year of public education, made Chicago’s JROTC program tops in the United States and led the city’s area 26 into the highest gaining region of the city’s high schools during Mills’ tenure.
Mills began his U.S. military career in 1980. He also served as deputy chief of plans and policy for the United Nations from June 1990 to June 1991, in Jerusalem, and as assistant professor at the United States Military Academy from August 1987 to June 1990, in West Point, N.Y.
Manatee County will also get a leader who, despite concerns expressed by the board’s Citizens Advisory Group during the hiring process that Mills might not be “warm and fuzzy,” spent his time in Minnesota with his door always open.
“People who first see me may get that impression initially,” Mills said. “But it is actually quite the opposite. I reach out to my team and staff. I want that interaction.”
Added Carpenter: “I get the sense he is easy-going and low-key. I don’t get the sense I have to stand up and salute him.”
But still, Mills is a man with a specific plan.
He talks about a 100-day transition plan, which is heavy on building relationships with staff members and the community and studying student data and district and state policies.
He also comes with a financial plan.
Mills spent his first six months in Minneapolis as acting CFO. He implemented monthly financial systems and built a system to track it.
He talks about a five-year financial plan in Manatee County based on an interactive financial model that will allow the district to conduct “what if?” analysis.
In five years he wants Manatee County Schools to rank in the top 25% of districts in Florida.
“I have a passion for educating children,” Mills said. “The more I get involved in the educational process, the more I want to be involved in student achievement.”
The School Board agreed Monday to a contract with Mills, for an $183,500 salary — an increase from his current $175,000 salary in Minneapolis and the $171,000 McGonegal made in the same position.
The contract includes a provision that allows Mills to be terminated without a specific reason.
Mills still has to sign the contract, but he is expected to do so. The contract calls for him to start work March 20.
Contact Josh Siegel at email@example.com.
Education: Master of arts in business from Webster University, in St. Louis; master of arts in national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Calif.; bachelor of arts in criminal justice from Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Family: Mills’ wife is a teacher. She will relocate to Manatee County this summer. His 22-year-old son attends school in Long Island, N.Y.
Interests: Mills has his pilot’s license and scuba diving certification. He also likes to golf and enjoys the outdoors.
Florida connection: Mills was assigned to the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base from 1996 to 1999. His brother and his family live in the Plant City area.