Manatee school board members begin to comb through audit supporting documents

ejohnson@bradenton.comFebruary 3, 2013 

MANATEE -- Just 24 hours after the Manatee County School District released more than 16,000 supporting documents for a recently completed forensic audit, school board members are trying to decide where to start within the approximately 900 files.

"I've looked at it a little bit," said David "Watchdog" Miner, who has openly pushed for weeks that the documents be released. "I'm going to go through each page. It's an insight into the situation that you don't get with the summary report. There are things in there that I think we've seen before, but I think this report is a lesson book in what we need to avoid in the future."

The forensic audit was completed after the discovery of a $3.4 million budget deficit, and an executive summary was released three weeks ago.

The school district received the supporting documents from auditors at Navigant and lawyers from Trenam Kemper about 2 p.m. Friday. The IT department spent several hours finding the best way to make all of the documents public, ultimately combining them into two compressed files that were made available for download from the school's website just after 5 p.m.

Miner said he has already come across several significant findings, especially the

time that lapsed between the deficit being discovered and being made public.

"The more I see, the more disappointed I am," Miner said. "(Former superintendent Tim) McGonegal and the finance department knowing for quite some time that there were enormous problems and holding back on it was injurious to our community. It was quite clear on Aug. 2 that there was a huge imbalance in the finances, and this was not made public until a month later. It does not reflect the kind of concern our community deserves."

In notes from McGonegal's interview, the former superintendent who resigned after announcing the deficit called Aug. 2 the "oh boy" moment. On that day, Finance Manager Sheina Runions ran a fund balance report that projected a $5.3 million deficit. McGonegal asked employees "not to tell anyone" until he could inform the board. The deficit was made public Sept. 7 followed by a public hearing Sept. 10.

Board Member Robert Gause, who has not had a chance to begin skimming the documents, said McGonegal showed him a draft of the memorandum he would send to board members the following day.

"I would normally try to meet with him on the week prior to any board meeting to get answers to any questions I had; the budget was one of the things on there," Gause said. "I told him I thought he should (resign)."

McGonegal said he believes he would have found a solution if not for health issues, which he said delayed notification to the board, according to his interview summary.

"Normally, as a consultant, when I identify a problem I also identify a solution; I can understand that you try to find that," said Gause, referring to his landscaping business. "He could have told us earlier, but he wanted to have answers. That's my understanding of it."

Notes from an interview with former Assistant Superintendent Jim Drake state he was unaware of the deficit when he retired in February 2012. McGonegal had asked him to do so after Drake made several mistakes, according to Navigant's notes.

Runions told interviewers that she had informed Drake of the problem in December 2011.

"We must be sure to take steps to see it doesn't occur in the future by having a high degree of transparency that was so enormously missing before," Miner said. "I think my fellow board members are all on board for doing that, which is the good news."

After the documents were released Friday, Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter said she would first be looking at interviews of McGonegal and Drake.

"I want to know if the right questions were asked and what the answers were to those questions," she said. "When did management -- the superintendent and CFO -- start to discover things were not right? Why didn't they bring that up to the board? Who else in the finance department had a duty to let us know what was going on?"

But on Saturday afternoon, Carpenter said she had not looked at the documents.

"I can't get into the files, so that's frustrating," said Carpenter, who has been unable to download the files on her computer. "I don't know if others are experiencing that or not."

Board members Julie Aranibar and Barbara Harvey did not immediately return phone calls Saturday afternoon.

The school district is hoping to make the files more organized and easier to view this week. Carpenter said the board is also planning a Q&A session at the end of February to discuss contents of the documents.

"This benefits our community to have as a reminder," Miner said. "It's all a very sad story, but it's a story that needs to be read and discussed so we learn from the past."

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.

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