EAST COUNTY — As a school district leader who didn’t build his career in the classroom, Rick Mills, a superintendent with a military background and a master’s degree in national security affairs, likes to bring outside perspective to education.
In November, Mills led a professional development workshop for all of the Manatee County School District’s principals and senior administrative staff.
There, he showed a clip of the film “Moneyball,” which tells the true story of a baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, that experiences a long run of success with a unique, data-based approach required because it has little revenue.
“I did it to show how, as leaders, we make decisions that produce outcomes,” said Mills, whose completes one year as Manatee County Schools’ superintendent March 20. “It’s about how metrics and projections produce wins.”
One year into his tenure as the leader of Manatee County Schools, it’s impossible to measure success in wins. Mills spent this year trouble-shooting.
It was a year defined by audits, staff restructuring, teacher cuts and rehires, town hall-style meetings, budget building and hard-to-measure change.
Sure, Mills put his stamp on the district, hiring new faces (deputy superintendents Don Hall, his former comrade from Minneapolis Public Schools, and Diana Greene, his former competitor for the Manatee superintendent job) and making other staffing changes.
He devised a five-year strategic plan, to be published in March, that sets funding priorities based on community feedback. He reinstalled basic budget procedures such as position control, payroll encumbrance and requisition so that $38 million in public money (the new administration’s valuation of the budget shortfall over the last four years) won’t be lost again.
But he also couldn’t shed old district warts.
Two State Auditor General’s Office reports produced in December revealed the district could spend more than $9 million to recover from major financial errors incurred in the past – threatening his efforts to produce a positive fund balance for the first time in three years.
Hearing the community’s calls for accountability, Mills continues to probe the past.
He recently engaged the state inspector general’s office, an agency that detects government fraud, waste and abuse, to study the school district, although the inspector general has not agreed to do so yet.
Mills cares less about public perception than about results, yet a year full of change makes it difficult to predict if he will reach his ultimate long-range goal — for Manatee County Schools to rank in the top 25% in Florida by five years into his tenure.
For now, Mills will let another figure tell the story, and have others interpret it as they may.
“To turn it around, there has to be a foundation,” Mills said. “The public understands that the district was a heartbeat away from fatal catastrophe. But I just revealed to the School Board an $8.1 million surplus for this year’s fund balance. That’s coming off an $8.5 million deficit last year. And that represents a turnaround of $17 million.”
MILLS' REPORT CARD
The Manatee County School Board voted to hire Superintendent Rick Mills Feb. 20, 2013. He officially assumed the school district’s lead role March 20, 2013.
Here is what people are saying about his performance during his first year on the job.
Karen Carpenter, Manatee County School Board:
“Superintendent Mills has done a very competent job. He has strong leadership and management skills. He uncovered much more disarray than we thought there was. From a public perception standpoint, it depends on whom you talk to. Some are happy with him. Others are unhappy because they don’t like change. I get anger from certain sectors. People are looking for accountability. But it’s sort of not Rick Mills’ problem.”
Bob Gause, Manatee County School Board:
“Superintendent Mills’ best strength is also kind of his weakness. He has experience in highly different systems and with that, he has brought structure to the district. He’s accomplished a lot, although it’s not been easy. But it’s difficult to measure him on what he actually accomplished. As the budget gets under control, I am looking for better student performance. Accountability increases. Public perception right now is mixed because there’s a lot of change happening. It’s scary and not everyone agrees with it.”
Rick Kimsey, volunteer on the district’s Citizen Audit Committee and parent of a district high school student:
“Superintendent Mills and his team have done a phenomenal job. There was a ‘yes man’ culture here, and he’s tried to change that by hiring competent people who have been there and done that and who will do it in Manatee County.”
Pat Barber, president of the Manatee County Education Association:
“There’s a lot to overcome, but I think Superintendent Mills is trying hard to do it. We have a good working relationship with the new administration. But teacher moral is very low. Teachers are being asked to be patient until the restructuring is done and they are hearing it will be a number of years until they see an effect in the classroom. So, it’s difficult. I don’t believe students can be successful unless teachers are empowered.”
Linda Schaich, former candidate for the Manatee County School Board:
“Manatee County is fortunate to have three top administrators who are doing an excellent job trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again. They have surpassed our expectations. The citizens need to understand that these problems started in 2008 and that the ‘fix’ will take many years of hard work.”
Holly McAndrew, PTO vice president at Bashaw Elementary School:
“We are in the same situation we were in before. I am upset about budget cuts. I understand budgeting within means, but I’m not convinced we’re in a better spot than we were before. How long do we have to wait?”
Debbie Graves, treasurer of the Braden River High School Athletics Booster Club and parent of two district students:
“I think Superintendent Mills stepped into a daunting task and I admire the steps he’s taken to turn things around. I ultimately hope they have enough money to reinstate funding for athletics. This is the first year we’ve gotten nothing from the county. I understand cuts and I think the community is willing to wait, but it can’t be the status quo. Athletics funding needs to be in the budget in future years.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Tabernacle Christian School middle school student Lauren Medred, an East County resident, earned top vocal honors, taking first place in vocal solo female category of the Florida League of Christian School’s Festival of the Academics and Arts Feb. 28 and March 1 at Southeastern University in Lakeland.
Manatee County schools dominated a state technology competition with five of six top-three finishes earned by Manatee County schools during the 35th annual Technology Student Association State Competition late February.