Sunday, May 27, 2018
Editorials

Call a halt to Children's Board circus

The numbers are toxic: Half the employees at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County believe the organization "doesn't operate with values or ethics." Two-thirds think management is shady. Nine in 10 are frustrated, and one-third consider quitting every week. This public agency is in free fall, and its governing board needs to act before child welfare in the county is further compromised.

The board got a glimpse of reality this week when outside auditors blasted the operating culture at the agency, whose $35 million budget is funded almost entirely by local property taxes. A survey of employees found "an organizational culture mired in crisis." Three-fourths said that management played favorites and was clueless about sinking morale. Two-thirds complained that senior executive were so unethical they would bend the facts for personal gain. Even more managers than the rank-and-file were dissatisfied with the agency's leadership. And some policies, the audit found, were outdated and broke local, state and federal laws.

The auditors used the nicest language to spread the blame across the "executive team," but the responsibility falls to Luanne Panacek, the agency's longtime chief executive. She has spent the year swatting away concerns over her management style. The board made matters worse by playing along and turning its fire on Panacek's critics, ignoring the "internal chaos," auditors found, which has lasted "nearly a decade."

The agency's mission to serve tens of thousands of the county's at-risk children is too important for this circus to continue. The board needs to fire Panacek at its meeting on the matter Aug. 9 if she cannot come to terms with what's best for the agency in the interim. It would be a shame if righting a problem that's existed for years were dragged out even longer, especially over a payout. The auditors hammered home time and again that the board needs to take "immediate" action "to correct the downward spiral." The board has an obligation to finally act with the urgency that taxpayers deserve.

The meeting Aug. 9 really should focus on the larger issue of the transition after Panacek. The board and the next CEO clearly have some housecleaning to do in the senior management. And board members need to reflect on their failure to oversee the operation. It shouldn't have taken an outside audit to wake the board up to what months of bad press had already exposed. Board members should either commit to pay closer attention to this vital agency or redirect their volunteer time to less essential civic pursuits.

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