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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 8, 2018 9 months ago

The price to earn an ‘A’

Sarasota’s school tax vote is a ‘renewal ritual.’ But for the new school tax to pass in Manatee, voters need to see a dramatic change. Two of its board members should resign.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO
Sarasota school tax

The March 20 vote in Sarasota County to extend for another four years the 1-mill levy originally approved in 2002 has pretty much become a renewal ritual. 

Three times since that first vote, Sarasota County electors have supported the tax decisively. Indeed, it would be safe to say part of the county’s culture — and a source of pride — is for taxpayers to do almost whatever it takes to ensure the Sarasota County School District remains one of the few A-rated districts in the state.

Likewise, you could say Sarasota’s extra 1-mill tax is an affirmation of the old saw “you get what you pay for.” If you want good teachers, you must pay to attract them. That’s one of the benefits from the tax, and the results show (see the box).

So it would be futile for anyone to attempt to make a case against renewing the tax. That’s not to say we oppose it. Nor do we favor it in principle. Suffice it to say we have a view of education that is heretical and antithetical to the mainstream: The customers, market competition and freedom of choice should drive it. It should not be governed by the state and unions — more precisely overgoverned — as it is now.

But that’s a topic for another time.

We recommend: Yes on the Sarasota County school tax

Manatee school tax

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 recently that involved school board Chairman Scott Hopes and board member Dave Miner. Hopes alleges Miner drove his car toward Hopes in the school district’s parking lot after a meeting at which 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. And sadly, Hopes and Miner are reinforcing the long-running perception — perception is reality — that the Manatee School Board is always a dysfunctional family.

All that makes it extraordinarily difficult for Manatee voters to have confidence in the board and to be willing to approve 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. 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 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 years before that period.

In spite of these steps, the detractors frequently note two blemishes: 

  • That state auditors recently cited nine areas in record keeping that need improvement. The most significant: 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 its leaders ask investors and lenders for capital, the money people recoil: “Come back when you have a better and 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, slowly.

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 enough capital so the company can attract the right leadership and talent 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 past, it needs investors — voters — willing to believe, take a risk and have faith.

But those voters also need a strong, immediate and 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 they believe it to be in the best interest of Manatee’s students, teachers, taxpayers and the community 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. 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 insure 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 Manatee County school tax.

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