Manatee schools need the proposed 1-mill tax if they are to get on a path of consistently rising success. But voters also need a sign that the board can be trusted.
Just when you want to get behind the Manatee County School District and help it achieve a consistent, upward trajectory, the Manatee County School Board once again becomes the district’s own worst enemy.
Talk about incredibly bad timing.
By now, many readers who follow the news have read or heard about the parking lot incident last week that involved school board Chairman Scott Hopes and board member Dave “Watchdog” Miner. Hopes alleges Miner drove his car toward Hopes in the school district’s parking lot after a meeting where the two argued. Miner says otherwise — that he was trying to leave but Hopes kept coming toward his car.
He said, he said.
To make matters worse, Hopes last Friday told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he wants a public mediation session “to be a learning experience” for Miner. And to gas that fire even more, Hopes was quoted saying: “That is not the behavior of a mature adult. At the least, it is the behavior of a junior high school bully. At the worst, it’s assault.”
Unfortunately, neither is showing the behavior of a mature adult. What’s worse, and sadly, Hopes and Miner are reinforcing the long-running perception — perception is reality — that the Manatee County School Board always is smitten with being a dysfunctional family.
And that makes it extraordinarily difficult for Manatee voters to have confidence in the board and to be willing to approve on March 20 a new four-year, 1-mill property tax levy. The new tax would raise $33 million in the first year to boost Manatee teachers’ pay and extend classroom time by a half-hour.
Blemishes cloud progress
Truth is, the public knows Manatee schools need that boost. Many, many Manatee residents, parents, teachers, business owners, civic leaders and Superintendent Diana Greene desperately want Manatee schools to get on a path and stay on a path that elevates the district’s performance and reputation. Adopting this tax and using it to raise pay and extend the class day certainly would help.
Greene, for instance, wants teacher pay to be competitive (see box) to be able to attract top-flight teachers and avoid conducting exit interviews, as she did last spring, with more than 80 teachers who resigned to teach in neighboring Pinellas and Sarasota counties where the pay scales are higher. Likewise, longer class days have been a proven mechanism of helping to raise student performance.
But conventional wisdom says Manatee voters have been skeptical of adopting a new tax even before the Hopes-Miner debacle. Nagging issues have continued to hang as a cloud over the board — in spite of progress it has made.
Most significantly, that progress included the school board in the past four years turning its $7 million negative reserve fund balance to a surplus of more than $25 million, a noteworthy improvement in financial stewardship. At the same time, the district registered B’s from the state in two of the past three years, compared to all C’s the three previous years before that period.
In spite of these forward steps, the district’s detractors frequently note two blemishes:
- That state auditors recently cited nine areas in record keeping that need improvement. The most significant of these is the district has been taking an average of six months after its month-end closing to reconcile its bank accounts.
- A new software system grew in cost from $9 million to $19 million.
The standard line among those opposed to the new tax is: Why give the district more money when it can’t handle well what it has?
And now add to that: Why give the district more money when its board, once again, is becoming more, not less, dysfunctional?
Like a tattered business
To be sure, the Manatee school tax is a tough question.
When you look at the overall picture, it reminds us of a tattered, undercapitalized business whose leaders are struggling to pull off a turnaround.
To revive it, such a business needs two things — cash and leadership: cash to attract new talent and bring its operations up to today’s standards, and A-rated leadership — on its board and in the executive offices — that can execute and revive confidence.
But in its current state, the business faces a troubling conundrum. When the business’ leaders ask investors and lenders for capital, the money people recoil: “Come back when you have a better and more consistent record of success.”
So the spiral down continues. Management scrambles to keep cutting expenses and runs itself ragged 24/7 just to keep the business going. Turnover is high. Little changes, certainly not quickly.
How will it ever get out of this fix?
Here’s what is needed: An investor or investors willing to believe in the business’ prospects; willing to take a risk and have faith; and willing to provide the business with enough capital so the company can attract the right leadership and talent, and enough capital so management can focus on running and improving the business and not live in a state of worry and panic.
Such investors don’t just hand over the money, though. They do it with expectations, assurances and requirements for oversight and accountability.
End the board strife
This is where the Manatee School District is. Indeed, if the district is ever going to break the barriers of its long, mediocre past, it needs investors — voters — willing to believe, take a risk and have faith.
But those voters also need a strong, immediate, dramatic sign that the status quo will not continue. This sign should start at the top.
Scott Hopes and Dave Miner should immediately resign from the board. They should take the high road and acknowledge to Manatee voters that they believe it to be in the best interest of Manatee’s students, teachers, taxpayers and the community at large to remove any obstacles that would impede the district’s success.
Let’s be honest: Everyone knows, given what occurred in the parking lot, the strife between Hopes and Miner will never end so long as they remain on the board. Their personal conflict will be counterproductive to what needs to be accomplished.
With their resignations, School Board Vice Chair Gina Messenger and members Charlie Kennedy and John Colon should make a plea and vow to Manatee voters to support the 1-mill tax — with the assurance they will work with Superintendent Greene and the district’s new 10-member Financial Advisory Accountability Committee to ensure fiscal responsibility, transparency and truth with the 1-mill tax and all of the district’s finances.
What’s more, Manatee’s business and civic leaders must vow their assistance however they can, and to assuage taxpayers concerned about their rising tax burden, the school board and Manatee County Commission should work together to find ways to trim their budgets and millage rates.
This is the proverbial “all hands on deck” moment to begin a dramatic and needed transformation of this important institution. It all starts with Hopes and Miner. They must resign for the good of the cause.
We recommend: Yes on the 1-mill tax.