Lyons: Manatee School Board sin? Secrecy, not rift

Lyons: Manatee School Board sin? Secrecy, not rift

Some Manatee County School Board members and the superintendent are embarrassing themselves, some people say, by having a public rift at a time when unity is really needed.

But since when is disagreement embarrassing, especially when the issue is budget cuts and teacher pay, a matter of obvious public interest? Too many unanimous votes make me suspicious. They make board members look like rubber-stampers who just want to avoid stepping on toes.

And board members Karen Carpenter and Julie Aranibar certainly won’t be accused of that, especially after their dissenting votes on a plan to cut teacher pay, a School Board split decision highlighted by hard feelings and accusations of hypocrisy.

The clearest criticism of Carpenter and Aranibar, perhaps, came from Superintendent Tim McGonegal in a surprising assessment of the sort a superintendent rarely levels at any board member.

The basics: After those two board members pushed at least as hard as anyone for major and necessary budget cuts, they voted against McGonegal’s proposals for getting it done. And the boiling point came after the dissenters finally agreed — during closed-door discussions — to support a pay cut plan as a necessary evil, yet voted against it at the very next public meeting.

That sounds irresponsibly two-faced, and I applaud McGonegal for daring to call them on that behavior.

Carpenter acknowledges that a consensus had indeed been reached in the closed-door sessions, a somewhat rare non-public meeting made lawful because it involved an unresolved conflict with the teacher’s union.

But she says that in the days after that meeting, she decided there were better ways to cut the budget.

Aranibar did, too.

“I thought I was free to vote my conscience,” Carpenter said. It wasn’t an attempt to fool teachers or let other board members take the heat for cutting their pay, she says. On a board where, as newcomers, they say they often can’t get the superintendent or board chair to put their items on the agenda, “I didn’t understand that we were supposed to be in lockstep.”

Well, my wife is a teacher in the Manatee school system who appreciates the willingness of any board member to keep looking hard for alternatives to pay cuts. But I sure get how the critics see that surprise vote as a heinous double cross. I’d feel the same way if blindsided that way after an agreement. There had already been a lot of time to find and suggest budget cut alternatives, if Carpenter and Aranibar really have any realistic ones.

But what happened next is what fascinates me. Both Carpenter and Aranibar say they had understood that what was said at the closed-door meetings was confidential. That was why the meetings were not even recorded for future public release.

So, both asked me, how was it OK for McGonegal to talk publicly about what they had agreed to?

In response, they both announced they would no longer attend closed-door sessions on teacher pay.

“I believe that we should do the public’s business in public,” Carpenter told me.

Good for them, I said to myself. I hate closed meetings.

But School Board Attorney John Bowen is being much appreciated by their opponents for issuing an adamant legal opinion bashing those two board members. Skipping those meetings would be a dereliction of duty, he said.

Ultimately, the duo’s refusal could be reported to the governor, who has the power to remove officials.

Please. The real crime, we all know, was their unexpected vote. None of the three other board members would really miss Carpenter and Aranibar if they fail to attend a meeting.

I think the three other board members should realize that it was closed-door meetings that set the stage for this drama of betrayal and outrage. They should happily agree to stop having them.

If you think of Carpenter and Aranibar as two-faced double-crossers, what better way could there be to prevent them from double-crossing again?

Tom Lyons can be contacted at tom.lyons@heraldtribune.com or (941) 361-4964.