Jason Wysong, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, said he has been like a sponge.
Since taking the helm of the district in July, Wysong has been touring schools, meeting with community organizations and leaders, meeting with parents and attending school events.
Every interaction he’s had with an administrator, teacher, student, parent or community member has been an opportunity for him to learn something about the School District of Manatee County.
With Wysong’s first 100 days on the job behind him, he’s looking to use what he’s learned to focus on what the future holds for the School District of Manatee County, including making tough budget decisions.
Time to evaluate
The School District of Manatee County is in the process of evaluating programs and its budget.
The district needs to factor in the loss of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds provided to school districts to help support students and address learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district has received $159.5 million in ESSER grants, which fund 207 positions within the School District of Manatee County. The positions include teachers, counselors, classroom substitutes, teacher aides, reading teachers, social workers, and English Speakers of Other Languages resource teachers.
The loss of ESSER funds means the district must evaluate those positions to determine whether they should be cut or funded through the district’s general fund.
“The question is, what are we going to do without in order to maintain a budget that is fiscally responsible?” Wysong said. “It’s a matter of determining if you’re going to fund ‘x,’ you’re not going to fund ‘y.’ I’m always mindful of scarcity and opportunity cost. There are never enough resources to do everything.”
Wysong said the district has to consider “strategic abandonment,” meaning the district would discontinue programs and initiatives that have not had the desired impact or have not met their mission.
He said evaluating programs and initiatives is not a quick process.
“On the career pathways side, it’s looking at what are the workforce demands now and in the future, and do we have programs that maybe are a little less relevant given the skill sets that kids are going to need in the future?”
Wysong said the key to continuing or starting any programs is ensuring they are sustainable. The district also has to provide the proper resources and continue to evaluate them in case small course corrections are needed.
Wysong hopes to start a program to help students build strong problem solving, communication and collaboration skills.
“We want to be sure we have advanced academics for kids who want to go to elite colleges and universities and then we want to be sure we have training programs for students who want to go into the workforce,” Wysong said. “Those pathways are equally important. It’s about making sure as we add programs, particularly at elementary and middle school, that they’re helping kids build skills so they can go in any direction they want.”
The district has a budget of nearly $1.4 billion. With the largest portion of the budget being salary and benefits for personnel, Wysong said the district already is looking at staffing plans for the 2024-2025 school year.
The district also will be evaluating the 1-mill property tax referendum funding as the referendum will need to be voted on in 2024.
“The millage framework in Manatee was well thought out by those who created it, but each time you have to go back to the board, the county commission and then the voters for authorization to continue, it’s important to stop and reflect on where we are, what are the benefits and drawbacks of what we’ve done before,” Wysong said. “My team and I are going to take nothing for granted.”
Wysong has visited a majority of the district’s 50 schools. He said a highlight of the school visits has been meeting food service employees.
“They are very much unsung heroes,” he said. “Our classroom teachers can be at their best when our kids are ready to learn, and that means being well fed and well cared for every day.”
Wysong said the principals have been integral to understanding the needs of the district. He has hosted small group meetings with the principals to receive feedback on priorities and needs. He also has asked principals about how district administrators can better serve them.
“Our principals are the most important employees in the district from the perspective of moving student achievement as a whole,” he said.
Wysong said Manatee County is a generous community that wants to work with and support the school district.
“There is a spirit of collaboration and cooperation here that is not commonly found in communities,” Wysong said. “Often in the nonprofit world, there’s competition for donors and resources. Here, there’s a lot of people with big hearts working together to help children and families. It’s exciting to be a part of that effort.”
Wysong has been able to see the teachers in action, giving him an idea of their quality. He said he’s been impressed with the number of veteran teachers who have been with the School District of Manatee County for at least 20 years, with many staying at the same school for a majority of their careers.
“That level of dedication and passion for students and for the local neighborhoods and communities is extraordinary,” Wysong said. “It’s humbling to get to now be the leader of this group of very dedicated employees.”
Throughout his school visits, attendance at events, and community interactions, Wysong said people want to see the district’s leadership visible in the community and they want to be heard. He plans to have district leadership attend School Advisory Council meetings to receive feedback and provide district updates.
“You can’t lead an organization this size from your office,” Wysong said. “You have to get out and be where the action really is. That’s not in the boardroom. It’s in classrooms, on athletic fields and in our performing arts centers.”
Focused on the future
Wysong said every classroom visit demonstrated to him the district’s focus on literacy. He said teachers must be deliberate each day on having students work on their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.
“Our first progress monitoring data looks positive in terms of continuing incremental growth,” he said. “It’s that long term, sustainable, incremental growth that’s going to get Manatee, first of all, to being an A district, but more importantly, positioning our students to take advantage of all the great accelerated academic and career pathways. Those things are much harder to access if your reading skills aren’t solid, and certainly, they’re less accessible if you don’t grow that love for reading.”
Wysong said one of the ways the district can increase students’ proficiency in reading is ensuring teachers have the time to plan and work collaboratively.
“It’s that type of collaboration that sets us up for success in the classroom,” he said.
Another factor is ensuring students are coming to class ready to learn by addressing and supporting students’ physical, social, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Wysong wants teachers and principals to educate with what he calls a “calm sense of urgency.”
“What that means is we’re very aware that every minute matters,” he said. “We want to be sure we’re deliberate about every minute of classroom time but we’re not panicked. We’re not frantic. We’re not changing course every time we see something that maybe would work better.”
The district and the School Board of Manatee County also will be looking at the district’s strategic plan to be sure staff members are focused on the areas most important to the school board.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.