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Time to keep close watch on School District of Manatee County

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

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I'm sure you've experienced the situation. You sit in front of a car dealer, or a bank loan officer, and they push a mountain of paperwork in front of you.

Quickly, that person slides a page at a time across the desk with a big yellow X where you are supposed to sign. The page itself contains four thousand words in medicine-bottle type. You are told it can all be summed up in a sentence.

"This one says if you don't pay on time, the interest rate rises, but it's really no big deal," the representative tells you.

Jay Heater
Jay Heater

You sign it, because reading those pages will take 12 hours and a lawyer. And on it goes.

Down the road, we find that we should have read those pages. Our car explodes three months later, and we find there was a clause that our three-year warranty would be negated if we drove more than 20 miles a week through the first three months of ownership.  Oh, gosh, we should have read those pages. We have no where to turn.

Contracts, as they apply to us, are binding. To others, perhaps not so much.

In May, school board member Dave Miner brought up the contract signed by School District of Manatee County Superintendent Diana Greene when she accepted a job from Duval County Public Schools. The contract said Greene couldn't accept other employment during the length of the contract except if it was permitted by the board in advance. She didn't get that approval.

In the end, Miner was the only one who seemed to think this was a big deal. I get the impression that his fellow board members felt this was Dave just being the old "Watchdog" and trying to grab a few headlines. The board voted 4-1 to allow Greene to slip away with their blessing.

Miner, though, was right. The contract originally was presented to Greene as a reward for work well done, but it included clauses to protect the taxpayers from an employee leaving to greener pastures before the length of the contract was completed. It does cost extra bucks to hold a job search and interviews.

Certainly, if Greene didn't want to be here, then the board should let her slip away. However, she signed the deal, apparently signing on the yellow X without reading it, and it was Miner's point that the contact should at least have been examined closely to see if the district could recoup any funds, thereby protecting the taxpayers.

The purpose of all this is not to whine about a situation that has been finalized. But we are moving forward at a difficult time for the school district and we should learn from our past. I would imagine many taxpayers are fed up with our current situation. The 1 mill increase barely passed with slightly more than 51% of the votes in March. Around the Lakewood Ranch area, as I talk to taxpayers, I used to get the "anything for the kids" response. Now, not so much.

The current Guardian situation is an example. School board members openly questioned whether the Guardian program would be worthwhile considering the amount of savings as opposed to using certified law enforcement personnel. Then last week, the board members decided to go ahead with the Guardian program anyway.

In the past year, taxpayers have voted to put another $63 million a year into the School District of Manatee County system ($33 million with a 1 mill property tax hike and $30 million with the extension of a half cent sales tax). The district budget is almost $900 million.

Then we are told the school district doesn't have the money to pay for certified law enforcement personnel to protect our children. What gives?

With three school board members up for reelection and a new superintendent search under way, now is, more than ever, time for transparency.

If we have qualified applicants for the superintendent's job within the School District of Manatee County system, who are they and what are their qualifications? What do school board members value most when it comes time to select a new supervisor? If we offer our new superintendent a longer-term contract, do we have any penalty clauses for early departure? What is the future of school resource officers at our schools? Is the Guardians program a long-term solution or a temporary fix? As taxpayers, we might want to provide some feedback when we get these answers.

More than ever, we must pay attention to the fine print.  


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