Manatee school board elects new leadership

November 20, 2019


The School Board of Manatee County held its annual passing of the gavel on Tuesday, electing a new chair and vice chair.

Board member Scott Hopes nominated Vice-Chair Gina Messenger for the chair position last year, and he did so again on Tuesday evening.

“I have found her to be a student of the issues,” Hopes said. “She reads. She studies. She has now served as the vice chair for two years. She’s done it with honor and with distinction.”

It seems her colleagues agreed. With a unanimous vote of the school board, Messenger became the new chair, replacing Dave Miner as the board’s leader. However, the nomination was offered with a caveat.

Hopes said he wanted Messenger to schedule a closed meeting with board members, district officials and law enforcement in the near future. The discussion, Hopes said, would focus on security procedures at school board meetings.

“Which should be followed by a clear and direct communication to the public, so they understand what the expectations are,” he said.

After her appointment, Messenger said she agreed with the need for more communication and a review of board policies.

“I am serving the board to have the most orderly meeting possible,” she said.

The emphasis on security and public communication followed several months of rocky board meetings, the ejection of community members and, in one case, the arrest of an audience member who spoke from his seat.

After the district’s July 23 takeover of Lincoln Memorial Academy, supporters of the charter school began to attend board meetings in protest. They criticized the decision to terminate Lincoln’s charter, and the board’s support of Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, the focus of a state investigation into fraudulent graduation rates.

Citing over-crowded board meetings, standing guests and blocked walkways, the district implemented new security procedures, limiting the number of attendees and requiring that all guests remain seated.

It also rolled out hand-held metal detectors and bag checks at the front door, issuing a vague statement about “safety concerns associated with the school board members and/or meetings.”

While district officials underscored the need for order and safety at board meetings, the vocal critics — many of them black or Hispanic — feel the policies were meant to stifle complaints and minority voices.

Speaking on Tuesday evening, board member James Golden said the board needed stability, and for that reason he nominated Charlie Kennedy as the vice chair. Kennedy, a board member since 2014, previously served as the board’s chairman.

“We need the calm, steadying hand of someone who has served as the chair — someone who is very compassionate and aware of the need for public input,” Golden said.

Miner, the former chair, then nominated Golden for the position of vice chair, but he soon declined.

“I think it would fly in the face of what I would like to see accomplished by this board: more professionalism, more objectivity and deliberation, more systematic approaches to how we’re dealing, particularly, with respect to the public,” Golden responded.

“Mrs. Messenger has done an admirable job all year long, trying to keep us in the right direction with respect to that part of the meeting,” he continued, talking about the previous vice chair. “I think she should be followed by someone with more experience than I have.”

Soon after Golden declined the position, the board returned to its original nomination, electing Kennedy as the new vice chair.

“This is kind of an interesting moment because we now have a chair and vice chair who are former — and will be again some day —educators,” Kennedy said. “But more importantly, the five of us are all here to serve the same public.”

The change of leadership was nearly complete, but just before Messenger took the helm, Superintendent Saunders presented a plaque to Miner, the former chairman. It was adorned with a gavel and a gold version of the school district’s logo.

“Thank you for the privilege and the honor of serving with you,” Miner said. “It’s hard to imagine anything more noble than trying to educate all of the students here in Manatee County.”