As in every election, our recommendations unabashedly side with the candidates most likely to preserve and advance liberty; with the candidates who believe individual liberty is superior to that of the collective group; with the candidates who vow to shrink government spending and its intervention into our lives; and with the candidates who embrace free-market, not crony, capitalism.
For East Manatee County voters, the Aug. 26 primary is mostly about the county’s school board — who should serve as board members and policymakers for three of the five districts of this battered, albeit recovering, $560 million enterprise.
Yes, there are other primary races at the state level — for governor in the Democratic and Republican parties and attorney general in the Democratic Party, and a circuit-court judicial race that encompasses Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties.
But the greatest election intensity is on Manatee’s school board races. To help give voters perspective on the choices they face, herewith are our recommendations:
MANATEE SCHOOL BOARD
Talk about tumult. For the five members of the Manatee County School Board, these past four years are probably a blur, a painful, stressful ordeal that, when board members look back on them, probably also seem surreal.
It’s also safe to say that from the departure of former Superintendent Roger Dearing in 2008 until the announcement last week that the Manatee County School District reported a $4 million operating surplus, the past six years will go down as one of the lowest points in district history.
The fiscal mismanagement under former Superintendent Tim McGonegal — from 2009 to September 2012 — was so egregious, two legislators reacted to the findings of a state audit of Manatee schools by saying: “This is one of the most appalling things I’ve heard,” and “It’s radioactive.”
There is little point recounting all of the mismanagement. But thank goodness the board selected Superintendent Rick Mills in early 2013; he is restoring the district’s financial health — from respirator to increasingly breathing steadily.
But one of the nagging questions for voters is: Where were the incumbent school board members when all of the mismanagement was occurring? Are they not responsible for overseeing the superintendent and serving as fiscal stewards of taxpayers’ money?
Where were board members Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter, two incumbents seeking re-election, from the time they were elected in 2010? Why did it take two years under the board’s watch for the fiscal mismanagement to be fully revealed and corrected? Are they at fault?
From the outside, it might be easy for voters and for Aranibar and Carpenter’s opponents to lay blame on them and the other board members. After all, the buck stops with the board.
But not to sound as if we’re making excuses, it should be noted that uncovering accounting abuses and mismanagement inside an entrenched government bureaucracy is no easy matter — particularly when the man reporting to the board was also directing and responsible for the mismanagement. It was in his self-interest to avoid disclosure.
Add to that it typically takes new board members in any organization at least a year to grasp sufficiently the inner workings of a board and the larger organization.
We cite these circumstances to give Manatee County voters context. While we believe elections are referenda on incumbents’ performance, in the Manatee School Board elections, there is more to consider than the bad news that overshadowed the school board over the past two years.
In spite of the contentiousness that often sapped the board and damaged its credibility, board members ultimately did their job: They brought in a new leader to staunch the problem, restore order and begin rebuilding the district.
Who, then, are the best candidates to represent taxpayers, students, families, and the district’s teachers going forward? Who will bring the skills most needed to the board?
DISTRICT 2 — Candidates: Rodney Jones; Charlie Kennedy
With the retirement of 16-year school board member Barbara Harvey, the District 2 election features Charlie Kennedy, a Manatee High School teacher, and Rodney Jones, a longtime community volunteer and leader and social worker with at-risk children.
Each of these candidates would bring valuable knowledge and perspectives to the board, points of view that, to some extent, are at risk of not being represented.
For the past 10 years, Kennedy has taught at Manatee High. Before that, he earned hands-on business experience owning and operating two small restaurants in Pittsburgh.
Kennedy’s case can be compelling: He would bring a teacher’s perspective to the board (he’s not a union member) — an insight that is not there now.
And when you talk to Kennedy, his understanding of the issues and of what is needed on the board and in the schools is solid. To wit: He’s a big proponent of putting more emphasis on early education and pre-K, the precursors to success in school and life. He sees the top priorities of the board are to make sure the $340 million general fund is allocated in the right places; and perhaps more immediately, for the board and district administration to rebuild relationships with the community at large and teachers. Solution: more transparency and face time with residents and schools.
Jones, on the other hand, would bring other valuable wisdom and skills to the board. A product of Manatee public schools, 47-year-old Jones has been a visible leader in Manatee’s African-American community for 30 years. In 2013, the local NAACP honored Jones with the President’s Award for his years of community service.
Like Kennedy, Jones sees what is needed on the board. First: Bring a divided board and community back together. Jones has devoted much of his community service to that with, as he puts it: “a style of leadership that brings people together.”
While that may sound like kumbaya, those familiar with the workings of the school board in recent years know a large dose of that prescription is needed.
What’s more, while we wholeheartedly ascribe to Martin Luther King Jr.’s credo of judging by the “content of character” and selecting the most qualified candidates, Manatee voters would agree a well-rounded board with a variety of perspectives and experiences is healthy.
In the end, Manatee voters will win with either Kennedy or Jones. But because of the depth and breadth of his involvement in the community over the past three decades, we give Jones an edge.
Recommendation: Rodney Jones
DISTRICT 5 — Candidates: Frank Brunner; Karen Carpenter (incumbent)
To an extent, this race and that for District 5 are two of the toughest decisions for voters.
If this district election is a referendum on Carpenter’s performance over the past four years, one way to evaluate her tenure is she — along with board member Julie Aranibar — did the ugly work that needed to be done. They disrupted the status quo, which had become a trend line of decline that started prior to their election in 2010.
And this is what typically happens when disruption occurs: Conditions get worse before they get better. Which is exactly what happened in the district from 2010 to 2012. Carpenter and Aranibar led the charge for fiscal accountability, and along the way, there were periods of rancor among board members. But that, too, was predictable. Whenever you confront old ways to move to new ways, there’s resistance and dissent.
Carpenter and Aranibar persisted, and the results are evident. So why give up now on the corrective course Carpenter has helped chart? There is a strong argument to continue.
And then there is Frank Brunner.
Brunner, 47, served honorably and competently as a school board member from 1998 to 2006. A product of Manatee public schools, Brunner graduated from West Point and is a veteran of the Gulf War. His wife is a 30-year Manatee public schools educator; and he has twin 12-year-old sons attending public school.
His Manatee roots run far deeper than Carpenter’s, and there is great value in that historical community knowledge.
What’s more, during Brunner’s tenure on the board, the picture of Manatee public schools was notably better: Twice as many schools earned A or B grades as now, and the district received the state’s gold seal for fiscal management.
The tenor of the board also projected mutual respect and the ability to agree to disagree without acrimony. “I have nearly 10 years of understanding the roles and responsibility of the board,” Brunner says.
But why go back?
The talk in parts of Manatee is that Brunner represents an attempt to bring back the “good-ol’-boy” power network. Brunner, of course, says: “I’m about looking forward.”
This is a tough choice: the proven, successful service of a past board member; or the continuation of a courageous disrupter who helped end the wrongs.
Brunner should serve on the board again. He has all that it takes and would bring consensus building and West Point leadership skills. But we’ll side with Carpenter, 71, to continue the board and district’s turnaround. She expressed much higher confidence in Superintendent Mills than did Brunner. And in these early stages of the district’s comeback, this is not the time to disrupt Mills’ momentum. We hope Brunner runs again.
Recommendation: Karen Carpenter
DISTRICT 5 — Candidates: Julie Aranibar (incumbent); Mary Stewart Cantrell; James T. Golden; Carlton Les Nichols
The caliber of candidates in this district is extraordinary.
Aranibar, mother, entrepreneur, community activist and volunteer extraordinaire; Cantrell, former longtime CEO of one of the most recognized and successful technical schools in the nation (Manatee Technical Institute); Golden, a former two-term Bradenton City Council member and lawyer whose name makes almost every list of Manatee community leaders; and Nichols, a 36-year-old Marine veteran and property manager who shows a passion for improving schools that you would expect from a Marine.
With only two years of residency in Manatee, Nichols lacks the name-recognition and involvement here that he had in Navarre Beach, where he lived for more than a decade. He should continue to become involved; his enthusiasm for the schools is always needed.
That narrows the contenders to Aranibar, Cantrell and Golden — all worthy candidates who would serve the district and taxpayers well. They all deserve a seat.
But this race is almost a mirror of the District 4 race, in which we recommend Karen Carpenter be retained to continue the job of rebuilding the district.
Aranibar has earned that as well.
We like how she describes herself: “I am not one who has ever taken from my community. What I did (the past four years), I know I did it for the right reasons. I stood up and got in there when things were not good. Even through the darkest days, my focus has been on protecting children. My focus has been on solutions.”
Even through the darkest days, Aranibar also endured her own serious physical illnesses — a testament to her indefatigable determination. To paraphrase commentator Bill O’Reilly, Manatee taxpayers can be sure Aranibar is always looking out for you.
Recommendation: Julie Aranibar
12th circuit court judge
CANDIDATES: Art Jackman; Susan Maulucci
These two candidates have both earned seats on the judicial bench. Each is well qualified.
Jackman is currently a felony division chief in the 12th Circuit’s state attorney’s office, where he has served for 18 years.
In addition, he has served 28 years — and continues to serve — as a judge advocate-colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
And throughout all this time, he has tried hundreds of cases of all types, including the prosecution of a man who stole a top-secret computer from U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
Jackman is All-American (He even made the Notre Dame football team as a defensive back.)
Maulucci’s experience is equally extensive and diverse. She served seven years as an assistant state attorney in the 12th Circuit; for the next 13 years she practiced family law, with an emphasis on children and juvenile guardianships.
And since 2004, Maulucci has served as a 12th Circuit general magistrate. This is the equivalent of being a judge — but without the authority to try jury cases. In this position, she has presided over family law hearings and trials and always difficult Baker Act cases.
When you talk to lawyers and judges about Maulucci, they are unequivocal: Her vast experience, longtime community service as an advocate for children and her judicial temperament make her an outstanding candidate for circuit judge.
We recommend Maulucci, and urge Jackman to try again. His turn will come.
Recommendation: Susan Maulucci
OBSERVER PRIMARY RECOMMENDATIONS
East Manatee Ballots
Circuit Judge Group 17 — Susan Maulucci
School Board District 2 — Rodney Jones
School Board District 4 — Karen Carpenter
School Board District 5 — Julie Aranibar
Next week: The gubernatorial primary candidates; and the Democratic Party attorney general candidates.