Manatee school board member, challenger differ on superintendent, COVID-19 response

BY GIUSEPPE SABELLA
MAY 22, 2020 03:58 PM 

School board candidate Bridget Mendel and incumbent Gina Messenger convened in Palmetto for a virtual debate, vying for the District 1 seat on Friday morning.

Manatee Tiger Bay Club organized the debate and broadcast the event from a board room at the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County. During the one-hour debate, Mendel and Messenger fielded questions on finances, charter schools and preparations for COVID-19.

Both mothers and former teachers, Mendel and Messenger will face off in the August primary — but the similarities end there.

ON THE SUPERINTENDENT

Messenger continually praised Superintendent Cynthia Saunders during the one-hour debate. She said the superintendent was fiscally responsible, forward thinking and persistent in the face of COVID-19 and dwindling tax revenue.

“That’s one of the things that is wonderful about our superintendent,” Messenger said. “She understands. She sees that coming, and she has planned conservatively for next year, finding money so she can trim without hurting our students’ education.”

Messenger also praised the superintendent on her effort to plan for the upcoming school year. She said the superintendent purchased safety equipment and drafted several plans. As of Tuesday, the options were to fully open school, remain in online learning or combine the two.

“I really have to commend our superintendent, because she has seen this coming and she has been working diligently to create multiple sets of plans.”

Mendel has often called for the superintendent’s resignation over the last year, citing an investigation by the Florida Department of Education, Office of Inspector General.

According to the “Finding of Probable Cause,” issued in December 2018, Saunders “instructed district employees to code withdrawing students as ‘withdrawn to home education’ when neither the students nor the students’ parents had any intention of home schooling,” leading to inflated graduation rates.

Mendel traveled on a bus with more than a dozen others to silently protest the superintendent’s settlement hearing in Fort Lauderdale last October. The Education Practices Commission unanimously rejected her settlement and the case resumed.

“I have attended many school board meetings over the years,” Mendel said. “I speak at public comment, advocating not only for my own children, but for others that we know are more than a score.”

ON CHARTER SCHOOLS

Mendel has consistently spoken out against for-profit charter schools and the diversion of money from traditional public schools.

“Chronic overcrowding, moldy portables with leaky roofs, massive flooding on school campuses and crumbling infrastructure must be remediated. That takes money, and it needs to come from our developers. It must also stop being siphoned and sent into the deep pockets of profiteering charter school management companies.”

Messenger followed with her own response, noting that she tours and supports all public institutions, whether they be traditional campuses or charter schools.

“I’m a big believer that it should be fair to all of our students,” Messenger said. “There’s a lot of great programs in our charter schools. There’s a lot of great programs in our traditional schools. I support our students going to any of those schools.”

Both were also questioned about a recent school board debate on referendum money. Charter schools were receiving the same percentage of revenue from the district’s one-mill increase on property taxes, despite their increased enrollment.

Messenger said a change in law would ensure that all charter schools would receive their fair share if the referendum were renewed after its expiration in 2022. She also supported a future conversation with board members to figure out plans in the interim.

“I am aware there are some charter schools that feel that way,” Messenger said. “I have met with some of those community members.”

Mendel said she would not support an increase in tax revenue for charter schools. Instead, she said, they should have been excluded from the referendum that was approved by voters in March 2018.

“I would not have shared that referendum money with the charter schools,” Mendel said. “Charter schools were created because they could do things better, more effectively and cheap, with regard to less accountability, less district regulations.”

On COVID-19 and the reopening of schools

Messenger’s child is among the thousands who may return to school in August, making the issue a personal one for her.

“I’m more invested in this than I could possibly even state,” she said.

The district, she said, would rely heavily on the governor’s reopening plan and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The superintendent has also worked to buy and purchase lots of different equipment and supplies that we may need when school opens, if the schools can open,” Messenger continued.

Mendel underscored the importance of contact tracing to identify and isolate positive cases of COVID-19, protecting the county’s vulnerable populations. She said many carriers of the virus were asymptomatic, making testing especially important.

“In regard to having children come back to school, I am extremely adamant about testing continuously: our teachers and, if necessary, our students,” Mendel said.

Mendel also criticized the district’s solution for internet access and online learning. Manatee installed WiFi hotspots at schools and rolled out dozens of WiFi-equipped school buses, but Mendel felt the district should focus on providing hotspots at families’ homes.

“We have got to give these children air cards and let them do their work at home, not drive to some parking lot,” she said.

“The School District of Manatee County was innovative in even being able to offer the internet on the buses,” Messenger countered. “And I agree, that may not be the most ideal situation, but it has been so innovative that other school districts are now copying what Manatee County has done.”

On district finances

Mendel said the district was spending copious amounts of money on “bloated layers of district administration.”

She pointed to the district’s recent hiring of Tim Bargeron, the associate superintendent for finance, at a starting salary of $148,744. His job title was recently approved with a pay range starting at $91,507 and maxing out at the salary he received.

“The amount of money that is going into these top-tier administrative positions, that is very concerning to me,” Mendel said. “I really and truly believe that money should be funneled back into the classrooms.”

In response, Messenger said the new-hire had expertise in handling the complex job of education finance. She also said that Manatee recently created the position — and the higher salar— to compete with other counties.

“If you look at our 18-19 budget and you look at the line for general administration and you consider how much money is actually in the general fund, you would find that administration is only 6 percent of the budget,” Messenger said.

“What is going to instruction is a massive amount of our budget,” she continued. “What is going to general administration is a very small percentage of what’s in our budget.”

Messenger and Mendel also touched on the roll-out of enterprise resource planning software, commonly known as the ERP project. The undertaking started under former Superintendent Diana Greene at a budget of less than $10 million before it climbed to $27 million.

Mendel said the price tag resulted from mismanagement of the project. She believes the project team was understaffed and often disregarded in the decision-making process.

Messenger argued that Manatee’s project was not over budget. She said the budget increased over time, as the plan grew and more vital needs became apparent.

“We did not go into debt with the ERP and we did not go over budget. I know there are media sources that like to write that, but it’s just not accurate. The budget was changed when the scope-of-work changed.”

“It was not over budget, the budget was increased, just like when you remodel your house,” she continued.