Meet the candidate.
Name: Bridget Heffernan Mendel
Family: Husband, Mark; Three sons: Kevin, 21, and twins Aidan and Brendan, 18
Bio: Mendel has been a Manatee County resident for just more than 10 years and lives in Greyhawk Landing. She moved from the city of Chicago where she was born and where she taught in the Chicago Public Schools and in Evanston, Ill. She is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor's degree in economics and an masters of education in elementary education from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. In Manatee County, she taught at Bashaw Elementary School. She is an administrator of the Opt Out Manatee Group and has been asking for the removal of the high stakes from the FSA since it was brought to Florida in 2015. She has served on SAC at Lakewood Ranch High School, Haile Middle School and on the charter school boards at State College of Florida Collegiate School and Imagine at Lakewood Ranch. She taught first grade with K12 Inc’s Florida Cyber Charter Academy. She grew up in schools in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York as her family was transferred all over the northeast with her father's job. Mendel enjoys reading, biking and following the legislative session every year to see the changes made to public education in Florida.
Why are you running for office?
I am running because I feel that the School District of Manatee County is not trustworthy, truthful or transparent when it comes to our taxpayer dollars. Trust has come into question with the $37 million dollars that has been spent on an ERP system that still is not fully operable. The project that started out with a $10 million dollar price tag ended up with out-of-control spending and five board members who could not get to the bottom of it. We have a school board that did not reconcile our books for over an entire school year and not one board member could explain how this could happen. How can we trust them with an $899 billion budget?
Taxpayers do not see a board that is truthful when the school and district grades are reported annually by the state. We were asked to vote for a major tax referendum. We were told to vote for the tax increase because of the amazing rate at which we were graduating students from our district. We saw our graduation rates go up exponentially, yet little did we know when we went into the voting booth that the rates were artificially inflated by the superintendent. This was done at the expense of some of our most vulnerable students in the county. The district grade is also manipulated annually by moving our most at- risk students into alternative settings like Horizons Academy all the while denying those students their due process rights. Those students are moved there so that their test scores don’t bring down the district grade and in turn our district administrators’ bonuses.
We have 53% of our students at or above grade level in reading. Does the district think that their rating of "Highly Effective Rating" and a 10% bonus worth $20,000 for the superintendent is a truthful measure of student outcomes? Many taxpayers do not agree that this is a truthful or valid representation of the superintendent’s performance. In addition, the school board had the truth from the inspector general’s report stating clearly that the superintendent was found guilty of inflating graduation rates. Based on the truth in the IG report, a state commission declared that the district should revoke the superintendent’s teaching certificate and place heavy fines on her based on her actions. Instead they give her a glowing review a large bonus. That is a complete public denial of the truth.
Where is the transparency when the school board voted to deny the Citizens Audit Committee full access to all our accounts? When brought to a board vote for full access, the board voted no. The board maintains strict control of the Citizens committee and they pick and choose which accounts the citizens can have access to. In addition, where is the transparency when a citizen must sue the district to have access to public records? Where is the transparency when a citizen’s records request is deterred with an unreasonable $500+ invoice?
Far too many times over the years I have received those $500-$600 invoices because the board did not want me to have access to public records that they knew would call into question their actions, those of the Superintendent or her overpaid administrators. As a member of the School Board, I would have full access to all public records, and I would make sure that the public had the truth, trust and transparency that we all deserve.
In the end, I am running because the taxpayers, the parents and our students deserve a voice on the board that is willing to speak truth to power. For far too long there is a large portion of our community who have been marginalized and ignored. Test scores and school grades are more important to our district admin and school board then the actual students themselves. Change needs to come to Manatee and truth, trust and transparency need to be restored.
If elected, what will be your top three priorities during your term?
1. Early identification for children with language-based learning disorders that affect a child’s ability to learn to read. I want a Dyslexia screener for every child who is struggling to learn to read in early childhood and the primary grades. One in five students have dyslexia. That means that we are not identifying almost 20% of our primary grades students and we are not providing these children with the appropriate instructional materials or methods to make sure that they become fluent, confident grade level readers. iReady, Reading Plus, and other computer- based software programs, are unproven, and their companies have published that their products are not to be used for remediation with dyslexic students. These inappropriate remedial methods are the very reason why we have 47% of our children who are unable to read at or above grade level. Instead, we need to invest in highly specialized reading teachers that are trained in Orton Gillingham, Barton Wilson, and Lindamood Bell methods. LIPS, Cloud9, Seeing Stars, Book Share, and Visualizing and Verbalizing are other instructional materials we can purchase for student use. I would like to see a new magnet school specifically for students diagnosed with Dyslexia modeled after the one in Duval County.
2. We must improve bilingual education. We have more students than ever who do not have English as their first language. While teaching at Bashaw Elementary, I had students who spoke little to no English. The only time my students received any instruction in their native language was when an already stretched thin bilingual paraprofessional could stop by my classroom for a few minutes a week.
Decades of research have indicated that children should be educated in a familiar language that of their home or community. Children only learn to read in a new language well if they have a strong foundation of literacy in their native or home language because the transfer of skills from one language to another is easier that way. The fastest way to learn a new language is through the one you already understand.
In Manatee, we are throwing children off the “linguistic deep end” as we try and immerse them in English before they even learn their own native language. This creates a child who is neither fluent in English nor Spanish and it leads to failure in school. Those students become our high school dropouts.
Forty-five percent of our students in Manatee are white, 35% are Hispanic and 13% are black. Of our 50,000 students, 6,500 in our county are labeled as English Language Learners-ELL. Every year our ELL population rises, and we are doing little to nothing to address their needs. We can no longer rely on a handful of bilingual teachers or products like iReady, Imagine Learning, or the other English language mastery-based software programs that were never to be used with dual language learners.
Investing in a dual language magnet school would improve achievement. We have a small dual language section of kindergarten classes in Daughtrey Elementary, but this is far from enough. Duval County has multiple dual language magnet schools that would be models to replicate. There are 50/50 Two-Way Immersion Dual Language Programs in elementary and middle schools, while the high school model follows a 70/30 Two-Way Immersion model.
The dual language model is also marketable to English-speaking students who want to become fluent in Spanish. This would improve cultural competencies of our students and staff by bringing diverse communities together. It would also help relieve overcrowding in the East county Schools.
3. I want to bring an end to grossly overpaid administrators at the district level and get that money back into our classrooms. I also want the Citizens Audit Committee to have 100% transparency for all of our financial accounts, not just the ones cherry picked for them by the School Board members and Superintendent. I would also want the nepotism clause added back into the School Board Member’s employment contract and a full investigation of Horizons Academy to find out how many children in grades Pre-k to 12 were sent there and denied their due process rights. These children are sent there to hide them from the school and district state accountability measure. This one is a mix of different things because there are far too many priorities to make it just three. I guess if you had to pick one, I would do the overpaid admin and the audit committee.
What is your position on the following: Charter schools and the state’s recently expanded voucher-scholarship program
Not interested in charter schools or taxpayer funded vouchers for religious and private schools. Corporate tax credits fully funding vouchers was one thing, but now that the state is using taxpayer funds that are to be shared with traditional public schools, I no longer support them. The accountability measures for those taxpayers funded vouchers is zero yet the accountability measures go long and deep for our traditional public schools. If I can't follow every single penny of my hard-earned tax dollars then that money needs to stay with the schools that provide us with the most transparency.
Charters and vouchers have the unfair ability to cherry pick students and kick out the ones they don’t want any time that they so desire. They also like to cherry pick the most expensive ones to educate, like students that need ESE- Exceptional Student Education classes, because they can get more money for those children.
Charter management companies and voucher school management often choose the second week of February to ask the unwanted students to leave because that's when they receive the full amount of taxpayer dollars based on their enrollment numbers. Remember, twice the dollars for the students with twice the exceptionalities — the ESE students..
Once management gets that cash in hand they get rid of the students they no longer have an interest in teaching. They typically kick out the ESE students first because those children enhance their profit margins. Ask any family who has been asked to leave Pinnacle Academy. That is a perfect example of how the system is rigged in the favor of the for-profit management companies.
Far too many families of special needs children are lured to these charter and voucher schools with pie in the sky promises yet what parents don’t often understand is they are signing away their child’s federally protected IDEA rights and the services there were promised were nothing more than a verbal agreement. In addition, Charter schools are not public schools. Charter schools are privately operated schools that take public money, and that means less public money for public schools. More money for privatized schools means less money for public schools, and that means an erosion of systems and structures that are supposed to be in place to protect you as a parent/guardian and your children.
Charter and voucher schools almost most recently were the beneficiaries of the Cares Act PPP dollars while the federal government has not given a single dime toward the bailout of our traditional public schools. The state and the federal government expect local taxpayers to provide the extra funds for the reopening of our public schools.
Manatee School For the Arts, a charter in Palmetto received $1 million to $2 million Parrish Charter School received $150,000 to $350,000 Bradenton Christian School received $350,000 to $1 million.
Team Success Charter School received $350,000 to $1 million St. Stephens School received $1 million to $2 million.
You can tell the charters from the private religious voucher schools above. I’ve only listed just a few here in Manatee County.
Why should these Manatee charters come looking for a handout from our property tax referendum money again this year after they have been able to double dip with the federal government who gives our traditional public schools zero bailout funds to purchase PPE, cleaning services and supplies, plexiglass,
The private and religious voucher schools were also well compensated with PPP Cares Act funds.
Enough is enough. The dismantling and defunding of public education in Florida is real and it must come to an end. We can provide parents’ choice with the magnet school options that I mentioned in my top priorities if elected. Magnets all fall under district oversight and have full financial transparency to the public. They participate in the state accountability system, unlike voucher schools.
It is time to level the playing field and provide students with a choice not a corporate welfare handout.
Do you feel district leadership is taking the district in the right direction? Why or why not?
No, the district leadership is not going in the right direction.
My three boys attended the Manatee Public Schools for a total of 10 years. In that time, we had four superintendents and two interim superintendents. The leadership turnover has been ridiculous, but more worrisome was that every single one of them was a first year superintendent. As a long time educator in three different states with a masters of education in elementary education I know what the constant turnover of leadership in a district can do to a public schools system. It causes chaos and it leaves our district employees in all areas feeling frustrated and defeated. There is no consistent culture established and the goals and mission of the organization remain vague and unclear. I have seen us lose far too many wonderful educators and district leaders because of this chaos.
I served on the School Advisory Committees on all three of the schools my boys attended, and I also served on the charter school advisory boards that they attended in the district. That was a total of five schools that I became intimately familiar with. I was also a sub in multiple schools throughout the county and I was a kindergarten and first grade teacher for Bashaw for just under two years. I have had 10 years to see where our schools have flourished and to see where they have failed. I looked at each one from the perspective of a parent, a taxpayer, and a highly trained reading specialist as reading and language arts are my areas of expertise. I saw textbooks that were in shreds and were as old as the schools my kids went to. I saw overcrowding, moldy portables and crumbling school infrastructure. We can do better.
It was approximately six years ago that I started attending school board meetings regularly to learn more about how the district operated. During this time, the state started moving more toward tying teacher pay to our Florida standardized testing score. I knew that our teachers and our children were more than a score and that school privatization was the goal of our legislature. What I began to see at board meetings was that our five elected members were not willing to push back against this educational malpractice in the state’s reform initiatives.
As a result, I became the county administrator for the Opt Out Manatee group, an organization created to remove the high stakes from our state standardized assessment. I became familiar with the legislative changes to public education and saw the defunding and dismantling that started back with Jeb Bush. I continue to follow each legislative session with a group of parents from across Florida who lobby our legislators and who educate the parents about the serious damage being done through unfunded mandates and the moving of funds to charter and voucher schools.
I’ve also had the opportunity to see our current superintendent artificially inflate graduation rates and cook the books to raise student test scores and the district grade from 2014 until she was caught in 2018. I saw my teacher friends lose their positions and receive pay cuts over a single test score. I saw children needlessly being retained in third grade to protect administrator bonuses. The final straw was when I found out we were paying the legal fees for a superintendent who had destroyed the lives of many of our most vulnerable children while trying to rig the school grading system.
So no, this district is not headed in the right direction. If we have 47% of our children who can’t read at grade level, then something is wrong. We have a culture perpetuated by our district administration that includes bullying, retaliation and threats to both parents, children and teachers. We have grossly overpaid district administrators who carry out the wishes of our superintendent heavy handedly. We have children being coded as homeschooled or tossed into Horizons Academy to escape from the state accountability system. I've seen an unhealthy obsession with test scores and chronic over-testing with hours and hours of lost instructional time every single school year just to inflate bonuses. I have seen a lack of high-quality professional development for our teachers and defunding of our electives classes because they aren’t measured on the state assessments and can’t be used to inflate the district grade. I’ve seen our ESE student’s IEPs violated annually and our ESE stretched far too thin. We are housing our ESE kids and throwing them into Access Points education, not FAPE, the Free and Appropriate Public Education they deserve per their federally protected IDEA rights.
Do you feel single-member representation is working well for the school board races?
The district never amended the language from the ballot initiative that the public voted in favor of so this race is not a single district race. It is an all-county race. Single district races will not take place until 2022. It has been incredibly frustrating because I chose to run a single district race thinking that our board would spend the legal fees to fix the ballot language, but they refused. Personally, I think this helped me in my race because running as a Democrat, District 1 can be a tough place to get elected.
What would you recommend helping Manatee public schools attract the most qualified teachers?
First off, the most irresponsible vote the board made was to hire uncertified teachers and to attempt to certify them here locally for a total of three years. Right off the bat they made it their business not to find the most qualified teachers. In addition, these uncertified unqualified teachers will make the same pay as their highly certified counterparts who went to college and graduate school to hone their craft and to fully understand the academic, social, emotional and developmental needs of our children. A degree in education should damn well count for something and someone without the degree should not make an equal wage. If you want to hire them at all, which I would never have voted for, those FL uncertified teachers should be paid less. They should also not be allowed to join the teacher’s union and benefit from collective bargaining rights. That is a self-serving money grab move by a private sector union, the MEA, which makes their own rules. The union never even spoke out against the equal wages being paid. The whole thing was and still is very shady.
If I could change back the policy, I would make sure that we found the most highly qualified teachers starting out first with offering them a fair wage. I would also look for highly qualified experienced educators by making sure I gave them credit on the salary scale for the years they taught in other districts. That should count for something. We would attract better teachers from up north who want to move south but refuse to take a massive pay cut. To retain them here, I would start out with improved work conditions. No more moldy portables with no running water. I would improve the quality of professional development and provide funds for teachers to attend workshops outside of Manatee, and not just in our district offices.
I would also give teachers credit for step increases by attending graduate level courses to enhance and improve their instructional methods. We could pair with USF Sarasota Manatee to offer discounted coursework and even allow adjunct professors space to teach at the Professional Services Center. It would make the commute easier and the coursework more convenient for our teachers.
For example, we desperately need more ESE teachers especially those specializing in areas like Autism Spectrum Disorder. I know for a fact that the district ESE department is currently hiring teachers who have random college degrees, but not a single college course on ASD or even an education degree. It is just outrageous and a terrible disservice to some of our most vulnerable learners. If we see a need, we need to make the investment in the human capital we have right here to improve the quality of instruction and stop the massive teacher turnover.
It's not hard, we just have to make the commitment to invest more in our teachers. We will have the return on investment if we could only provide a reason for them to stay. It's not that we have a teacher shortage in Manatee County or even the state of Florida, we have a massive teacher exodus. I will never call it a shortage when I know so many experienced teachers just like me who all want to go back to the classroom but refuse to work under the work conditions we offer here.
If we don’t open schools up right during this pandemic, we will have no teachers left. They can’t teach from a coffin and they are not going to risk the lives of their family members for a job here in our county. They will retire, quit or take a year's leave with no pay if we think that we are going to reopen the way the board is currently planning.
And we cannot forget this last very poor decision the board made last school year. Manatee subs need nothing more than a high school diploma. Do you want a recent high school graduate as a substitute teacher for your children? I certainly would not. When the board constantly degrades the quality of our instructional staff, we will never get that world-class high-quality education they keep promising our taxpayers year after year.
What’s your position on school impact fees?
I believe that developers need to pay their fair share. Yes, while the fees get handed down to the home buyer, everyone should have a stake in the game here. Public education benefits everyone in our community, regardless of whether you have children in our schools or not. I moved here at the end of the recession and have had to deal with the severe overcrowding of our east county schools. My kids have sat in moldy portables and in buildings where chillers were inoperable. At Lakewood Ranch High, mold was everywhere due to the flooding in the auditorium and the leaky roof in the science building. I will never forget the night my son came home telling me the ceiling of the drum closet in the band room collapsed on his head and destroyed the bass drums because of the leaky roof.
I was glad to see HB1299 indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration in May of 2019. School impact fees would not be permitted to rise by more than 5% over two years had the bill passed. This would have hurt fast growing districts like Manatee going forward. We cannot keep putting the burden on the backs of the local taxpayers to increase property taxes to pay for the lack of the developer’s investment into our community. The growth out East is overwhelming and our buildings, even with the additions, are overcrowded again. Just for once it would be nice to say goodbye to the disgusting, decades old, rotted out, black moldy portables that our kids have spent years in now.
The defunding of public education in manatee county by those that profit from our schools needs to come to an end. While generous donations to the east county schools from the developers is kind, we need to make sure that all schools benefit from impact fees as our children get continuously shuffled around the district because of overbuilding and overcrowding.
Where do you stand on term limits for school board members?
We already have term limits for school board members. They are called elections that happen every two years. If a board member is ineffective, they will be voted out. This way the limit is based on local control, not state control. Power hungry state legislators want term limits to fill school boards with cronies looking to privatize and profiteer from charters and voucher schools from which those legislators either own or work for. Besides a state level power grab by Tallahassee this is also payback for school boards that refused to arm teachers two years ago.
If legislators want more school board turnover there is another way to make this happen. Prohibit anyone from running for school board from taking campaign money from vendors who do business with the school district. If you are going to profit from school district business in any way you should be unable to donate.
This would eliminate large donations from developers, builders, architects, construction companies, charter management companies, testing, textbook, health care, food services, or transportation companies. Campaigns would be decided at a grassroots level without the influence of corporate dollars. Too often these big donors end up buying seats on our school boards. No one should need more than a few thousand dollars to win a school board election. When a candidate is raising $50K to $100K it tells the taxpayer that the person is not there to work for the best interest of the children but rather the highest donor.
If we allow legislators to work for or own for profit schools that they can legislate on behalf of or those that still want to arm teachers, then term limits are a bad idea. Every citizen has a vote and they have a right to keep decisions local and based on the intimate needs of our community. Take the money out of school board races and then we can see who really wants what is best for our children.