Manatee School Board discusses replacing legal counsel

kbergen@bradenton.comJanuary 15, 2013 

MANATEE -- The future of the school board attorney position was a hot topic at Monday's board meeting, held hours after the results of a forensic audit investigation were revealed to school board members.

After a narrow 3-2 vote, the board determined that Board Chairman Karen Carpenter will look into the possibility of speeding up the retirement of school board attorney John Bowen, who plans to retire in June.

Carpenter said Monday evening that she put the item on the agenda in order to start discussions about bringing in new legal counsel at the same time the district plans to welcome a new superintendent.

"I put this on the agenda not as a referendum of people who like John Bowen or don't like him," Carpenter said. "If we can have our new attorney onboard as the superintendent comes on, that gives a fresh, new team."

Interim Superintendent David Gayler said that the decision would come with a cost.

"The cost is an issue," said Gayler, who confirmed that Bowen would have to be paid for the remainder of the year. Bowen's salary is $182,000.

Payout information for Bo

wen had yet to be calculated by the district at this time, said spokeswoman Margi Nanney. Carpenter said that would be partly what she'd be figuring out.

Any form of settlement would most likely come from the budget reserves, with funds hovering around 2 percent since September, when the recovery plan that fixed depleted district reserves was approved, Gayler said.

Carpenter and school board members Dave "Watchdog" Miner and Julie Aranibar, supported the motion, with members Bob Gause and Barbara Harvey opposed.

"I want to be sure that we took into account the needs of the district, what the costs are going to be, and make sure Gayler is comfortable that whatever is out there meets the needs that he has," said Gause, who worried that Gayler and others might be left without legal counsel.

An upcoming workshop will be scheduled to discuss what model of legal services the board would like to proceed with. The workshop, at this time, is unscheduled.

"There isn't universal praise for the contributions Mr. Bowen has provided to this district," Miner said Monday. "Whatever we do, the chair should have that authority to proceed."

Any agreement Carpenter might come to with Bowen would have to be approved by the board in the future.

The school board room also filled Monday evening with members of the public, many of whom seemed unsatisfied with the results of the forensic audit report, requested by the school board in September after a major budget deficit and revealed to school officials and the public on Monday afternoon. The report outlined vast incompetencies in the budget process, but only named former assistant superintendent Jim Drake as responsible.

"The conclusion section of this report is benign as I have seen in reports like this," said Michael Becks, once a campaign assistant for former school board candidate Linda Schaich. "You have paid close to $100,000 to find that no one was at fault."

Schaich spoke as well.

"There was very little that was of surprise to me...And that's just the general fund that was audited," said Schaich, who spoke of the need to audit the district's capital outlay fund. She said she's found missing chunks of money from the fund through her own calculations.

Miner spoke of board responsibility.

"There was no one here this afternoon that didn't feel sorrowful about the mirror that was held up to us regarding the financial management here," Miner said. "But it brought home that the buck stops here with this board. We're responsible for what happens."

Also at the meeting, board members voted 4-1 to pay Trenam Kemker attorneys an extra $5,000 for sitting in on interviews with Navigant investigators, an action that most board members said falls into a gray area when it comes to the role audit committee members defined for the attorneys. Miner opposed the motion. It is unclear how much the district has spent on the forensic audit through Jan. 14. District spokeswoman Margi Nanney said Monday that the district has yet to receive additional billing from the firms, which both charge the district roughly $250 an hour, since a Nov. 15 invoice for $70,000.

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