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Manning touts his leadership experienceprint_headline Touting leadership experience: Q&A with McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner candidate Norman Manning

Waco Tribune-Herald - 1/21/2018


Norman Manning, 68, of Waco, a Waco Independent School District trustee and Army veteran who served in military intelligence, is a Democratic candidate for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Early voting for the Democratic primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6.

Q You're a Waco Independent School District trustee at a time of great transition and challenge. Why would you want to go to work as county commissioner?

A The county commissioner in Waco plays a very important role. Being on the school board is very important because what's the purpose of the Waco Independent School District? To prepare students for the world basically, to get them job-ready or college-ready, whatever. The commissioner job has a little bit more power and a little bit more visibility and all that, but you still serve the citizens of McLennan County. You're serving a larger group of people versus an independent school district.

Q You mounted a race against Commissioner Lester Gibson, longtime incumbent as Precinct 2 commissioner, four years ago. Did you leave your job with the Precinct 2 road crew because of differences with the commissioner?

A To a certain extent. There was some friction [before the electoral contest of 2014]. That was one of the reasons I retired. But the other thing that happened four years ago, my father passed away. I retired at the end of December [2013] because my father was giving me problems and sometimes I'd be up in the nighttime, trying to take care of him, and I'd only get two or three hours of sleep and I couldn't do that Precinct 2 job on two or three hours of sleep. But then, to be honest, there was some friction [with Commissioner Gibson] and that kind of threw me back.

Q We have a lot of candidates running for this post, including three Republicans and fellow Democrat Pat Chisolm-Miller, administrative assistant to Mr. Gibson. All appear to have qualifications for the job. What do you bring to the table that is unique?

A Well, now, I've read some stuff about [Republican candidate and retired highway trooper] D.L. Wilson, I've read some stuff about Ms. Miller, and I think there are three distinct qualifications that I bring. First, I've got almost nine years on the school board, dealing with budgets, dealing with policies, dealing with people and dealing with crises. I mean, we cross over budgets with taxpayer money, county money, city money, state money and federal money, so there's a tie-in right there. And, as I say in my flyer, I have 16 years of management experience. I think that gives me a leg up on everybody, even Ms. Miller. She's got 22 years of experience, but it's as an administrative assistant. I've got over 16 years of experience being in charge of people, doing jobs like being state manager in Florida over a five-state region [as a manager for the Sable Corporation].

Q From a leadership perspective, what's the biggest lesson you've learned in almost nine years of experience on the school board?

A Two of the hardest things I learned being on the school board, and it took me time to understand, was curriculum and budgets because, well, thank God for Sheryl Davis, our chief financial officer. Trying to understand the budget, the way the school district gets paid [from sources such as the state] and everything like that and then - you know, we've lost state money and everything like that - understanding budgetary language, funding was very difficult. But Ms. Davis was very kind. I'd call her up and say, "Hey, I don't understand this, so could you explain this to me?" And she'd explain things to me.

Q The county is different from running a school district or a city because you're setting the final budgets for a lot of elected officials, such as the sheriff, district attorney or district clerk. Are you prepared for the fact this is a totally different kind of thing than you might face on the school board?

A I can see that, setting the budget for other elected officials, just like we have a policy for the school district and the seven trustees. The five people on the commissioners court [might also] have a policy. But no matter what, the main thing is that this is the people's money. It's not the commissioners court's money, it's not the [school] trustees' money. You have to be a good steward. I mean, hopefully, these people [individual county department heads] don't spend money for the heck of it and buy things that are unnecessary. You have to be aware sometimes that people try to put little budgetary items in there. I'm not saying I'm going to understand everything once I get elected, but within a time frame there's a learning curve to anything I'll do.

Q I know you're guided by civic principles and the concept of public service. You've worked very hard with the school district on campuses that face possible closure, possibly as soon as this year. You have a new superintendent on board that you helped pick. Is this really a good time for you as a public servant to leave the school board at this critical juncture and go over to the county?

A As a matter of fact, [former Waco ISD Superintendent] Bonny [Cain] and I discussed that four years ago. And I have been in discussion about this with [current superintendent] Dr. [A. Marcus] Nelson. It's the timing. It's the county timing.

Q I'm sorry?

A The county timing is off. There's no such thing as a good time. The election cycle for the county is different from the election cycle for the school board. It's just kind of unfortunate that this time frame is coming up at this time.

Q Yes, but I imagine Dr. Nelson would want you to stay. You have some struggling schools that must do well this spring [in academic testing and state accountability] or you and Dr. Nelson must pursue contingency plans. The latter include such ideas as transforming two struggling schools into single-gender campuses and doing so with community input and approval in coordination with the Texas Education Agency. Is the call of the county so much stronger than what you're doing now? That's possibly an unfair question, but I've gone to some of these neighborhood engagement meetings and I've seen you and Dr. Nelson. This just strikes me as a critical time for the schools.

A Well, [it's] because of the election. That's what it is. I said four years ago [after losing the commissioner race to Gibson] that I was going to run again. Now four years ago we were not as critical in the schools as we are today but, like I say, I have commitments and I've got some people who keep asking me, "Are you going to run again?" I've got some very important people in East Waco who kept asking me and I kept telling them yes. And to be honest with you, [even in] making the transition from school board to county commissioner, I will still be playing a major role in impact on the school district because of the background and the experience I have with that and it may be in some areas - when you're dealing with the citizens in the school district, then you have to deal with the citizens in the Precinct 2-

Q OK, I'm only asking because you and Dr. Nelson are impressing upon all in this community about the need for civic engagement - and Dr. Nelson is very impressive about the need for commitment. Do you believe we're going to be OK in Waco ISD with these schools in peril of being closed?

A We got Dr. Nelson for a particular reason, based on his background and experience [in improving troubled schools]. I mean, was it 2014-2015 Superintendent of the Year?

Q He was the Texas Association of School Boards 2014 Superintendent of the Year.

A Right. We brought him in here based on his background and experience, turning schools around and everything like that-

Q Yes, in Laredo Independent School District.

A I have no doubt that we got the right person in here to take care of the job. And don't forget, the school board - we're more of a, sometimes I say we just sort of rubber-stamp things.

Q You don't say that when you run for re-election, though. When is your school board term up?

A May. But we have already discussed that, unless I get a challenger [for school board], if I win in March for the November [county] election, I can stay on the school board till I get elected as commissioner. All I need to do is resign [from the board] the night before [taking office as county commissioner in January 2019].

Q But do you think that's fair to Waco ISD constituents to continue in the Waco ISD seat if it's likely you'll only be there a couple of months?

A I don't know if you would say it's fair, but even like Dr. Cain and Dr. Nelson both said: "Stay in as long as possible." But then again, no one can guarantee I'm going to win this [commissioner race]. As they say, if I don't win, I'm going to stay on the school board. If I do win, then I'll move on.

Q I've driven out there in Precinct 2 and the roads do seem a mess. Why is it so hard to keep the roads properly maintained in Precinct 2?

A From my prior experience, when I was working out there, I worked on at least three different roads with three different lead men. What I saw - and, again, not having the power then to say anything - it's inconsistency. The three different roads I worked on with three different [foremen] had some of the basics [in road maintenance], but then one guy liked to do things this way and the other guy liked to do it another way. I had a conversation with a gentleman who used to work out there and he builds roads for the federal government now. He said part of the problem is that we build roads too fast. I've been looking at them building roads out there - I-35 and roads like that - and what this guy told me, "The basic thing about building a road is foundation, foundation, foundation. If you don't have your foundation right" - I've seen roads that we built and within a year they were cracking and got potholes in them. So I know how to get back in touch with this gentleman and, if I win, I'm going to have him update me on that. I even heard Commissioner Gibson say that we got some of the worst roads out there because of the ground out there. But this gentleman said, "Yes, we do have problems with the dirt on the land, but the [key] problem is still how you build your foundation."

Interview condensed and edited for space and clarity.


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