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East County Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012 5 years ago

Observed: Educational bombshell

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

The Manatee County School Board’s meeting chambers were exceptionally crowded Monday night, and as I squeezed into the back to stand, I first noticed Superintendent Tim McGonegal was missing from his normal seat.

I thought it odd, then, that Bob Gagnon, a longtime Manatee County school administrator who became the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning about nine months ago, sat in McGonegal’s place.

McGonegal Sept. 5 had announced his retirement, but it didn’t take effect until Feb. 28.

I was still trying to put all the pieces together when the bomb, hypothetically, went off.

I could scarcely believe the words of School Board Chairman Harry Kinnan as he read McGonegal’s letter of resignation, effective immediately.

The same day as his retirement announcement, McGonegal had drafted a memorandum telling School Board members the district was facing a $3.4 million budget deficit, because salaries and benefits and some classroom materials were unintentionally excluded from original budget numbers.

Big mistake. Huge mistake. Career-costing mistake.

Still, I didn’t think it was like McGonegal to run. He’s been under tremendous stress and scrutiny, I know, but he’s also been at more school functions than I can count, simply representing the school district and showing his support for our educators and students. Yes, teaching professionals are beyond frustrated with pay and other issues that occurred under his watch, and rightly so; but there is no denying that Mr. McGonegal has worked hard to promote our schools.

But the feeling of abandonment hung heavily over the meeting chambers.

As one woman said: “Tonight, we were all ditched by Tim McGonegal. He ditched our children. He ditched our taxpayers.”

I felt much that way, at first, as well. But as the hearing continued and I heard the tone of the meeting, I was glad, in a way, that Mr. McGonegal didn’t come. It could have been really ugly.

Without question, the school district is facing a multi-faceted crisis. If Gagnon had not agreed to step into the interim superintendent role, I’m not sure what the board would have done, given the district, legally, must have a superintendent at all times.

And, it’s true McGonegal left the district precariously by leaving without helping to train a replacement or having more of an exit plan in place. He left the district in a scary, financial conundrum on the eve of its budget adoption. He left knowing weeks ago about the budget deficit, although it was not made public until last week. Plus, the district has undergone extensive restructuring over the last year, and there are many newer faces at the district level, leaving it — it seems — with fewer longtime employees, who know the district intimately, to guide the district in McGonegal’s absence.

Even so, I think it is a disservice to this community and to Mr. McGonegal to wear scowls on our faces and wag our fingers. He knows his error, and he has to live with that consequence.

We don’t have to be the nagging wife. He lives in this community, and he should be treated with respect. I think he has served our community whole-heartedly and tirelessly.

Like everyone else, I am angered that such an error could happen with the budget. But, I like what was said by one teacher on his behalf: “There’s not one person accountable for the past.”

Rowlett Elementary School teacher Starloe Golletta said she’d known McGonegal professionally since 2003. She asked that the School Board makes sure teachers’ wages are liveable, so they can survive while doing the job they love — educating children. And she also said there was no benefit to pointing fingers; instead, people should be offering solutions.

She did not believe McGonegal had acted criminally, as some had suggested, and she commended him for his decision to vacate his post and make way for the rebuilding of trust between the community and the school district.

“I do not believe McGonegal ditched us,” she said. “He’s a good man. He’s an honorable man. I appreciate the fact he had the compassion and willingness to step aside and let us move forward,” she said.

Well said, Ms. Golletta. Well said.

Please send letters to the editor to Pam Eubanks at [email protected]" target="_blank">[email protected].

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