BRADENTON -- Three Manatee County residents held a news conference Monday afternoon to say enough is enough to school board members.
Tom Garland, accountant James Ferguson and Richard Green say they are tired of hearing about what they perceive to be glaring budget problems. Garland and Green were members of the school budget committee. They said they are concerned about how school board attorney John Bowen has handled a case in which they believe a disabled child was mistreated.
They want Bowen fired. Plus they want the school board to search for a new superintendent. The three men explained that they have launched an ad hoc group called the Committee for Improving the Education of Children in Manatee County. More than 20 people stood in the school district’s administrative parking lot while rain threatened to hear the men’s messages.
“We’re only interested in seeing educational improvements,” Garland said. “When there are problems, there are opportunities. We need to do better. We need to get the … house in order to do better by the kids.”
At the news conference, the group called on board members to:
n Fire Bowen and launch an independent investigation of recent lawsuits that the group believes cost the district thousands of dollars that could have been better spent in classrooms.
n Begin a national search for a new superintendent.
n Launch an investigation of emails and communications between board members to determine if anyone feels they are being constrained from bringing to light problems with the district.
n Initiate another investigation into the district’s per student administrative costs. They say it’s the highest in Florida.
n Launch an independent investigation of the Manatee Education Foundation and to what extent it provides a benefit or cost to the school district.
District officials respond to allegations
District officials, however, disagree with many of the assertions the men presented. School Chief Financial Officer Jim Drake said that Manatee’s administrative cost is ranked 40th in a state of 67 counties.
At least 10 people spoke on behalf of Superintendent Tim McGonegal Monday night during public comments. Board members were expected to vote on McGonegal’s contract at press time.
Rev. James Golden called McGonegal the most qualified superintendent to lead or “captain” the district through “these tumultuous situations and stormy seas.”
Golden added, “We can’t let adversity cause us to turn throw the captain overboard.”
McGonegal asked that his extended contract not include a $13,000 pay increase for receiving a doctoral degree, according to school records.
In a letter to the board members, Ferguson called the Education Foundation a “continuous drain on the district. Expenses are higher than revenues with deficits hid by clever accounting tactics.”
Education Foundation Executive Director Mary Glass said she is troubled by the group’s assertions.
“It’s this type of misinformation that is so disturbing,” she said.
District officials asked an external auditor to vouch for the education foundation.
Leanne Cross, accountant with the local firm of CPA Associates wrote a March 9 later saying, “We are not aware of any funds that are provided by the School District to the foundation for their operations. The school district does provide the Foundation office space, use of district property, as well as payroll processing services; however, the Foundation reimburses the District for all payroll costs and any supplies or materials they consume.”
Perhaps most disturbing to Garland is how a child with disabilities was treated for three years. The child was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome -- a high functioning form of autism. Garland said the child’s parents had to go through three years of legal wrangling with the school district because officials wouldn’t allow an independent evaluation of the child.
“How that child was treated was wrong,” Garland said. “It’s simply disgraceful what the district has done to this family.”
The child’s father spoke to those attending the meeting. He was only identified as D.H.
“I felt a moral responsibility to speak,” D.H. said. “We feel she wasn’t allowed a free and appropriate public education.”
In early March, school board members unanimously approved a legal settlement of $55,000 for D.H.’s family. However, the lawsuit had gone on for three years.
Before settling, the case went to the Division of Administrative Hearing in 2008. An administrative law judge found in favor of the parents. However, the school district appealed to the U.S. District Court in Tampa. District officials sought an appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Tampa, which asked for all avenues to be exhausted. Bowen said the district’s private attorneys will be paid at least $154,000 in fees.
Parents wanted a private psychologist to evaluate their child who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Bowen, however, believed the district had a right “to control access to the classroom by outside vendors.”