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Mike Eng, Managing Editor
East County Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 5 years ago

Observed: Decision devolves into shameful display

by: Michael Eng Executive Editor


Enough with the pointing of fingers, the excuses, the gnashing of teeth.

When members of the Manatee County School Board last week voted 3-2 to institute a 1.75% pay cut and furlough days — retroactive to the beginning of the school year, no less — they surely knew the outrage it would cause.

But the next day, the School Board and Manatee Superintendent Tim McGonegal crumbled under the criticism, publicly chastising Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter, the two School Board members who voted against the measures. McGonegal said in eight executive sessions prior to last week’s hearing, both Aranibar and Carpenter made no indication they opposed the measure and accused the two of “playing politics” at the hearing.

School Board member Bob Gause echoed McGonegal’s sentiments and said Aranibar and Carpenter should have voiced their hesitations in the closed meetings. That they changed their minds at the end of the impasse hearing damaged the team, he said.

Interesting. Does it sound as though the School Board wanted its decision made before the hearing ever started? Why, then, did the hearing occur at all? Was it all supposed to be a formality?

Aranibar and Carpenter didn’t think so, and now, they are in the crosshairs.

Perhaps it’s their naïveté to think they were supposed to listen and consider the MEA’s positions. Elected in November 2010, Aranibar and Carpenter are relative newcomers to the board. By contrast, Harry Kinnan was elected in 1996, Barbara Harvey in 1998 and Gause in 2006.

“The (MEA) presentation at the impasse hearing made a clear case that we still have work to be done in budget spending areas,” Aranibar told me.

Sounds reasonable.

But in the aftermath, the message from the old-timers to the new blood is clear: Toe the line.

I’m not a politician. But I am a parent. And the behavior our district leaders exhibited reminded me more of my toddlers arguing over who threw the first punch than it did of officials solving problems for the greater good.

Perhaps the behavior was a calculated attempt to overshadow the ramifications of the measures approved.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. The 1.75% cut — approved retroactively to the beginning of the school year — will be sliced from 11 paychecks beginning in March. For a first-year teacher at the bottom of the pay scale, that means a decrease of about $193 per month from March through June. For a teacher at the top of the scale, that translates to a more than $300 decrease in take-home pay per month.

A word of clarification, though. It’s easy to blame and vilify McGonegal and the supporting School Board members. But McGonegal warned of this potential months ago, when he asked the MEA to forgo a special magistrate hearing to allow the School Board to settle the contract dispute. That hearing, he said at the time, could take more than three months, further delaying a potential pay cut and forcing the district to take it out of fewer paychecks.

That’s exactly what has happened. And coupled with a new state law requiring teachers to pay 3% into the state pension fund, some teachers say it is becoming impossible to be an educator in Manatee.

“Morale is at an all-time low here,” a veteran East County teacher told me. “One of my colleagues, who has three young children, told me that she doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to afford groceries for her kids.

“I’ve taught here for 24 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” the teacher said. “Lots of people I work with have talked about trying to find other jobs, because it is so stressful.”

I don’t doubt all those involved cast votes according to what he or she felt was the best for the district. Those who voted for the measure did so to save jobs in the arts and other elective classrooms. Those who voted against feel there were other areas in the budget that could be cut before teachers’ salaries.

So, instead of playing the blame game, those who disagreed with Aranibar and Carpenter could have kept the discussion on their own vote rather than that of their colleagues.

Each School Board member should have the freedom to cast votes based on his or her own conclusions — without threat of reprimand from anyone but his or her constituents.

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