Outgoing Manatee School District Superintendent Diana Greene said the 2017-18 ranked as one of the most eventful of her career.
BRADENTON — The eclipse should have been an omen.
Just eight days into the 2017-18 school year, the moon passed between the sun and earth, creating the first total solar eclipse in the United States since 1979.
Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene’s decision to keep district students indoors during the event seemed like a big deal at the time, but the year that unfolded made the eclipse a distant memory.
Hurricane Irma. The parking lot incident. Copycat threats after Parkland. Referendum success. Hopes Vs. Kennedy, rounds 1, 2 and 3. Nipplegate, followed by #Bracott. Hey Girl. And, now, Duval.
June 30 will be Greene’s final day as superintendent of Manatee schools before she departs to lead the Duval County district.
This month Greene reflected on some of the eventful moments of her three years as superintendent over Manatee and what she envisions as the next steps for the district.
She said this year ranks as one of the most eventful years of her career, but her goal throughout has been to maintain an even-keeled persona.
“I think that I facilitated strong leadership that has led the district into a sense of calmness,” Greene said when asked how her tenure most impacted the district. “People don’t see me or our senior leadership team rattled, no matter what the situation is.”
Greene said one of her proudest moments as superintendent was overseeing the effort of sheltering evacuees fleeing Hurricane Irma last September. As surrounding counties’ shelters filled, people came to Manatee, which opened 24 schools and housed more than 24,000 people.
“I was more in the weeds of, ‘OK, we’ve got a stopped-up toilet at Braden River High School, how do I get somebody over there to help them?’” Greene said. “We were not sitting there trying to figure out where these people came from, we were trying to figure out how to take care of them while they are with us.”
Greene said the weeks following the Parkland shooting tragedy were the two toughest weeks of her time here. The district received dozens of threats, often in the middle of the night, and she said her greatest fear was seeing a copycat situation in Manatee.
It’s "the level of intensity that comes about when you see a real-life tragedy happen and then the potential of that tragedy coming to your own community,” Greene said. “It was 24-7.”
District staff checked in on more than 1,000 students who had the potential of being “at-risk” in the weeks following Parkland, she said.
Just a month after the Parkland massacre, Manatee voters approved a one-mill property tax, which is projected to bring in an additional $37 million in revenue to the schools. Greene said she believes Manatee may have the highest-paid first-year teachers in the state next year as a result of the referendum, possibly trailing only Dade County. A Department of Education spokesperson said they do not yet have this data, so they could not confirm Greene's prediction.
The property tax was the second tax initiative Greene led. In November 2016, voters approved an extension of Manatee's half-cent sales tax, and Manatee is now the only school district in the state to collect every additional local tax within its power — a fact that tends to delight as many as it angers.
Greene said her successor's biggest task will be to ensure those funds are collected and spent correctly.
“With great success comes great responsibility,” Greene said. “Now that we have maximized our taxing authority, there is going to be a high level of responsibility in order to ensure that those dollars are used for what the voters approved them to be used for, as well as attacking the massive growth that is happening in Manatee County.”
She does not have plans to immediately pursue additional taxing options in Duval.
“I need to arrive in Duval and find out what is going on in Duval,” she said.
But, she said every county in Florida needs to be cognizant of the dwindling numbers of aspiring teachers and consider how they can lure them into the field.
“We have a national teacher shortage. We also have a national conversation about teacher pay," she said. "School districts will have to look at how their funding will impact teacher salaries. We have to be competitive.”
Greene said when she started as superintendent her goal was to have no D or F schools, raise the district's grade to an A and ensure the district was fiscally sound. As she prepares to leave, she said the finances are in order and there are no F schools. Her one regret, she said, is not eliminating the D schools and getting the district grade up to an A. This year's school grades have not yet been released, but two key indicators of academic success both went down — the graduation rate fell more than 2 percent, and the percentage of third-grade students reading on grade level slipped from 50 to 49 percent.
Greene said several initiatives for early learning will begin to show results next year, as the first group of third-graders who attended the district's Title I prekindergarten program take the state test. And she said while boosting the graduation rate was important, it should not come at the expense of providing a well-rounded education.
"There are no quick fixes," she said. "You can do some things to make quick improvement, but for things to last and have a strong foundation moving forward, it means burning the candle on both ends."