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East County Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2012 5 years ago

Our View: School Board: Dysfunction junction

by: Michael Eng Executive Editor

In October 2010, the East County Observer recommended Julie Aranibar over incumbent Jane Pfeilsticker for the Manatee County School Board District 3 seat.

At that time, we wrote, “Julie Aranibar would bring to the board characteristics this board could use — indefatigable energy, insatiable desire to make whatever she touches better, community involvement and, what we like best, paycheck-writing business experience.”

And now, more than a year later — and especially amid the recent controversy at Manatee schools HQ — that endorsement stands. Even more than before.

We knew Aranibar possessed the passion — and the guts — to challenge the regime. We knew she’d shake up the district’s go-with-the-status-quo flow. And she has — in a big way.

Few people knew, however, how ugly it would get, or to what extent the Old Guard would try to stifle, marginalize and demonize the outlier from their flock.

The days following the Feb. 15 “vote heard ’round the county” played more like an episode of your favorite trashy reality TV show than it did of a district and board led by intelligent life. The day after the vote, Superintendent Tim McGonegal used the press to accuse Aranibar and board member Karen Carpenter of “playing politics” because they voted not to cut teachers’ salaries retroactively.

Cue here: cheesy, cliffhanger bumper music.

On the next episode of “The Real School Board Members of Manatee County,” McGonegal continued his assault on Aranibar, this time fueling the outrage regarding Aranibar not donating 7% of her $36,000 salary to the Manatee Education Foundation or Take Stock in Children. These donations were intended as a show of solidarity — implying the board members were willing to take a cut alongside the district’s teachers.

Both the Bradenton Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran with the juicy story, publishing the hammer headlines, “Aranibar doesn’t donate portion of salary” and “As School Board reduces its pay, one member holds out,” respectively. McGonegal then issued a photo of his cell phone that depicted a text-message conversation he had with Aranibar, which he claimed was proof Aranibar agreed to the donation.
It does not. In fact, it proves the opposite.

Here’s the exchange:

Aranibar: “Tim, is there a payroll deduction sheet with my a signature?”

McGonegal: “Julie, I gave it Lynn. I did it for 5%. Did you want 5% or 7%?”

Aranibar: “I have to check with my attny. Anything with $ has to be approved by Richard and myself. Will pick up form and send it in. Thanks.”

Aranibar’s sticking point has remained clear: She doesn’t want to make a tax-deductible charitable contribution; she wants a real reduction of her salary. And that’s what she had asked of McGonegal — a payroll reduction sheet. What she received was a form to set up a donation.

Said Aranibar: “In the fall, I began mediation for my divorce and needed to document my pay. I had already informed my attorney that my pay would be reduced. I needed documentation and that was when I asked the super for a payroll-deduction form to verify my current income.

“I was given a form by the assistant to the super to donate funds to the education foundation,” she said. “That is not the same as a payroll gross reduction. The employees were not asked to donate to a charity; their pay was cut. I asked for the same.”

Remember how this most recent firestorm started — the retroactive pay cuts for teachers? Despite Aranibar and Carpenter’s “nay” votes, the motion carried 3-2 that night. But 13 days later, the School Board reversed its decision regarding the retroactive portion of the cut in a closed executive session Feb. 27.

“The School Board decided it was not in the best interest of the school district or its employees to become involved in protracted litigation to resolve the legal issues,” the release stated.

Under pressure from the Manatee Education Association questioning the legality of the retroactive cut, the School Board caved. All of a sudden, no longer pressing was the reason necessitating such a deep cut to begin with — paying off the School Board’s health insurance fund by June 30, which was deemed so critical that the board thought it necessary to cut teachers’ pay retroactively.

So finally, the budget — approved all the way back in July 2011 — is set. And it only took seven months, nine closed executive sessions, failed negotiations with the teachers union and the creation of a ocean-wide divide between the district and its teachers and employees — all wrapped up in an embarrassing public display of dysfunction.

And that’s the final episode — at least for this season. But be sure to tune in next fall when two challengers — Linda Schaich, who is vying for Bob Gause’s District 4 seat, and Lakewood Ranch High School economics and history teacher Robert Moates, who is after Harry Kinnan’s post — could change the entire complexion of the School Board.

We can’t wait. Nor can Manatee taxpayers. The School Board needs to change the rest of its cast.

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