$70,000 spent so far on Manatee School District forensic audit

kbergen@bradenton.comDecember 11, 2012 

MANATEE -- Forensic investigators trying to unravel money problems with the Manatee County school district have spent $70,000 so far on an audit.

Audit committee Chairman Jim Toomey Monday gave an update on the forensic investigation into the cause of a budget crisis revealed in September.

"The reports are tentatively scheduled to be released on Jan. 14, before the board meeting," Toomey said. "I have not heard anything specific to report."

Toomey said the last invoice from Nov. 15 stated that the district has spent $70,000.

At the request of new board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner, board members Monday also discussed the future of legal services in light of school attorney John Bowen's June retirement.

Board members need to decide if they will keep an in-house attorney or look outside for legal services.

Board Vice-Chair Julie Aranibar spoke of the impossibility of remaining impartial when you work with people you evaluate.

"Accountability means you can't have the same people doing the same jobs," Aranibar said, after expressing that the district's recent failures have come from the top. "I would not support inside counsel for that position."

Bowen vehemently but calmly defended the legal department after former Manatee County commissioner candidate Cory Holmes cited what he said were inconsistencies in Bowen's personal evaluations that were never addressed publicly.

"I don't have a dog in this fight," Bowen said multiple times, before defending an "outstanding" legal department, and calling attacks against the quality of investigations under his watch ridiculous.

Board members seemed primed to consider outside counsel and seek the school community's opinions, though no decisions were made Monday.

"We need to turn that page," board member Barbara Harvey said. "Now, we need to look forward to July 1. We need to receive recommendations."

A workshop will be scheduled for January.

Also at the meeting, the board tentatively approved a contract with John Ray Consulting, which provides information from the Legislature, particularly about workforce education funding.

The district will pay for $18,000 of the $20,000 contract, which goes through May 2013. John Horne has promised $2,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, but his contribution was not outlined in the contract.

Miner, a Bradenton attorney, expressed concerns that the contract did not accurately reflect the terms because the $2,000 was not promised in writing.

Board members, at the recommendation of Superintendent David Gayler, decided to provisionally approve the contract, pending a receipt of funding from the Chamber of Commerce. They will hold a final vote on the matter on Jan. 14 meeting.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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