Words: Cynthia Saunders (Manatee Schools Superintendent)
The 2018-2019 school year in Manatee County was one of transition, challenges, and hard work at all levels of the school district. Thanks to our talented students, dedicated teachers, and devoted support employees, I believe the school year added to what has now become an established record of success.
The school year started with a change in leadership. Dr. Diana Greene, who served as Superintendent in Manatee County for three years, left to take the Superintendent position in Duval County. I was truly humbled when the School Board selected me to serve as Superintendent following Dr. Greene’s departure, and I originally took the position with the idea I would not seek it fulltime.
Dr. Greene is a close friend and mentor. I worked in close proximity to her for many years and I was proud to serve as the Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services under her leadership from 2015 to 2018.
During that time period, the Manatee District made significant strides forward academically, financially, and in terms of community support.
Academically, our district earned a “B” grade three of the last four years (2015, 2017, 2018) after receiving a “C” grade the previous three years. We eliminated “F” schools from our school district and the number of “D” schools was reduced from 11 in 2017 to six in 2018.
Financially, the School District of Manatee County’s Fund Balance grew from $14.4 million in 2013-2014 to $30.2 million following the 2017-2018 school year. That caused global financial ratings firms – Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings – to all significantly upgrade their ratings of the Manatee District during the last three years.
Those academic and financial improvements raised the confidence level of our community and they demonstrated their generous support of public education by approving two separate voter referendums in a span of 16 months.
The first referendum, in November 2016, approved an extension of a half-cent sales tax for school district capital needs. Those funds are currently helping us build three new schools that will open in August and they are helping us fund badly needed maintenance and repairs to existing schools.
The second referendum, passed in March 2018, approved a one-mill increase to lengthen instructional time by 30 minutes each day; increase pay for teachers, bus drivers, and other staff who work directly with students; and expand career, technical, science, and engineering programs.
Thanks to the additional mill, our teacher pay is now competitive with surrounding counties. This past school year, the average teacher pay increase was $6,300, and the pay for a beginning teacher in our district rose to $44,400 – one of the highest starting teacher salaries in the state.
In February of this year, the School Board voted to make me the fulltime Superintendent. Although I was not originally planning to pursue the position, it became clear to me during the intervening seven months that the Manatee District needed stability to maintain our forward momentum. I am thankful for the School Board’s confidence in me and for the support I have received from our employees and community.
We have plenty of challenges. Serious challenges we must face head on.
We need to press on correcting problems resulting from our poorly implemented ERP business software system. This issue has been a tremendous source of frustration for all district employees and the school board, but we have scores of employees who have worked unfathomable hours to help find solutions to move us forward. That work will continue.
Rezoning to accommodate new schools and to address overcrowding at other schools is always difficult and we have more work to do in those areas. Providing efficient school bus transportation, especially in light of driver shortages and increased traffic, is another area of concern.
On the other hand, I am extremely excited about many bold initiatives we are deeply involved in, such as the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. We are working closely with tremendous community partners like The Patterson Foundation, the United Way Suncoast, and the Early Learning Coalition to take this important campaign to a higher level so that all of our students will be reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
In addition, we are bringing dynamic new academic programs to several Title I schools that are sometimes overlooked. For example, we are transforming Palm View Elementary in Palmetto into a K-8 Pathways School. Started by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Pathways schools offer students focused areas of study in areas like engineering, coding, cybersecurity, and drone piloting.
Other Title I initiatives include working with the University of Central Florida to transform Manatee Elementary into a Community Partnership School; adding an Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) program to Blackburn Elementary; and perhaps turning Daughtrey Elementary into a Dual Language Academy.
Overall, the School District of Manatee County is building on its success and making a difference in the lives of our students.
How do I know we make a difference?
I see it in the eyes of our students every year when I shake their hands at graduation. That’s what this job is all about.