EAST COUNTY — Karen Carpenter forgot what trust felt like.
Before her former leader abruptly retired after revealing a budget deficit Sept. 5, there was darkness: delayed presentations of revenue and expenditure reports; no response to emails; and closed doors.
So, when, a month later, in her first conversation with a man offering five-and-a-half months — and only that — to get the Manatee County School District out of that darkness, interim Superintendent David Gayler asked Carpenter if she trusted him, the School Board chairwoman had to stop to think about it.
“I told him I trusted him,” Carpenter said of Gayler, who served as Manatee Schools’ interim superintendent from Oct. 15 to March 18. “I had no reason not to.”
In an exclusive interview with the East County Observer, Gayler — brought out of retirement and away from his now 2-year-old first child, Jo Jo, to be a stabilizing force as he had been during his tenure as superintendent of Charlotte County Schools after Hurricane Charley — gave an honest assessment of his brief and important tenure.
It was a time wrapped around three goals he mapped out from the beginning, as soon as Wayne Blanton, of the Florida School Boards Association, phoned Gayler, 60, after a long vacation and asked for his service. Gayler had replied: “I’ll give you five-and-a-half months.”
Already familiar and a follower of Manatee County education — Gayler served as assistant superintendent of the district to Dan Nolan for 10 months in 2001 — the goals came easily.
Gayler says he accomplished the first two goals — stabilizing the budget to find out what led to the 2011-2012 budget deficit of $3.4 million and putting in the repairs so it never happens again; and supervising the search for a new superintendent who would start work on or before April 1.
The third goal wasn’t met. Gayler regrets it.
“I wanted to set some common goals with the board, and I told staff we didn’t accomplish that,” Gayler said. “There are five good people on the board who come from very different situations. I was not able to get us to see eye-to-eye as a team.”
Gayler suggests he didn’t have the time to bring the board together, a task he says will take new Superintendent Rick Mills two to three years.
The board joined Gayler on two retreats — one in January and the other in February — but Gayler wished there were more.
“I just really wanted to transition it to the next superintendent,” Gayler said. “It became, ‘Why not wait (to improve chemistry with the board) until Rick (Mills) gets here?’”
He says he spent 80% of his time on the budget, with every week revealing more unbudgeted items Gayler didn’t expect to find.
Gayler’s eyes opened widest when he discovered, under former Superintendent Tim McGonegal and former Assistant Superintendent Jim Drake, the district would set its budget at the beginning of the fiscal year, fail to budget for certain items and, then, pull from district’s reserves in cleanup.
The process depleted reserves to the point the district had to receive permission from the state in September to operate at 2% of its operating budget, less than the 3% required by Florida law.
Before Navigant, the audit firm hired to find the cause of the 2011-2012 budget deficit, presented its findings Jan. 14, Gayler was preparing a position-control budgeting system that would prevent the practice from happening again.
Gayler said auditors confirmed his own findings.
The district implemented the new system roughly six weeks ago, becoming fully operational March 25, after Gayler and Bill Vogel, the leader of Mills’ transition team, decided to freeze hiring and eliminate overtime and overnight travel, among other measures, through June.
“I know that no one on staff will forget the words, ‘Position control,’” Gayler joked.
Gayler left Manatee County as quietly as he came. He stuck a note on his successor’s desk — a list of eight suggestions to Mills.
The first was unpopular but necessary, and it came in the form of action when the School Board agreed to cut 188 staff positions for next year to meet class-size requirements (see story on page 3A).
His parting thought was another pass from the “short-timer” to the long-term guy.
“Before I go, even though it’s been tough and challenging, one thing I have to say about the board is that they gave me the opportunity handle this,” Gayler said. “And, now, they have a permanent superintendent. They need to support him, listen to him and move with him. This (Mills) is a good man.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
A look-ahead and suggestions from Interim Superintendent David Gayler (above) to new Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills, who took over March 20.
Â„• Hire a director of budget. Currently, the district has a director of finance (Angela Fraser), but no one hired to specifically oversee the budget.
Â„• Set long-term goals with the school board. “No district I know has been successful without action goals,” Gayler said. “That process has been lost here.”
Â„• Focus on academic plans. “The district needs serious work there. They know they need reorganizing of the administration. He (Mills) might need to bring in people from the outside. It will be a blend.”