School funds could be used to pay up to $1 million to Manatee district

eearl@bradenton.comApril 5, 2013 

MANATEE -- School district officials are trying to figure out what money to "borrow" from individual school accounts to trim up to $1 million of the budget shortfall created when Tim McGonegal was superintendent of schools.

Rick Mills, the new superintendent of schools, wants to create a state-required 2.2 percent fund balance, which would total $6.3 million. Mills has said he will take "excess funds" from after-school programs that provide supervision for students outside the normal school day and provide tutoring and homework help for children with working parents.

Mills asked the state which district accounts can be used to pay off the budget deficit. Eligible funds include those generated by athletic departments, vending machines, lost or damaged books, school pictures, yearbooks and after-school care programs, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Michael Boyer, chief financial officer, said there is enough money to pay teachers and fund the after-school program and "ample" money to pay down the district deficit, The district will also take vending machine money generated during after-school programs.

Principals at each district school have been asked to examine their funding and offer suggestions on district options. How funds from internal accounts are spent varies from school to school. For example, some schools use athletic funds for expenses such as team travel, banquets and special events.

Mills and his administration has already told all principals to rely on internal accounts funded by library fees, T-shirt and yearbook sales, and bake sales to pay for copying costs, supplies and overtime.

Boyer said the district is

only considering taking from state-designated "unrestricted" funds They are not allowed to use money parents have contributed for specific uses such as clubs.

"We have the fiduciary responsibility to not touch those funds," Boyer said.

Boyer said all schools have to contribute where possible and he is willing to meet with the principals to discuss their concerns.

"I am a team player," Boyer said. "I do not see the schools as autonomous; they are not their own cities."

Mills met with principals in March asking for cooperation. At least some are fully on board.

"I am fully supportive; this is the path we need to be on," said Jim Mennes, principal of Freedom Elementary. "It can't be one person trying to solve the financial issues. A little bit is needed from everyone."

Some Manatee County teachers, however, lament the plan to have schools make up district budgeting deficits.

Beverly Wolfkill, a Prine Elementary kindergarten teacher, said schools have to pay too high a price. Wolfkill said she was told copies, cleansers, paper towels and toilet paper would be covered by internal accounts. Now, apparently, they are not.

"Parents need to rise up and demand that children are first," Wolfkill said. "Please explain how I use my students' math books, which are all consumable, when I have 17 books and 21 students and no copying money,"

Boyer acknowledged some principals are struggling with the decision to use internal funds but said it is essential the district and schools "share the budget back and forth in this recovery."

In a memo to the principals, Mills said the district will repay all contributions in the future depending on how quickly the district can return to financial health.

Because internal school account revenues vary at each school, Boyer said principals will meet with district staff individually to ensure the district is borrowing from appropriate funds.

Mills and Boyer said student achievement will continue to be a top priority, and academic intervention programs such as tutoring will continue to be funded.

The school district is cutting back, too. Boyer's memo showed district department budgets have already been cut by $2.4 million, and more cuts are "still being studied."

School board Vice Chairwoman Julie Aranibar said the district must be more strict about making sure the schools do not overspend supply budgets.

"The No. 1 responsibility of the school board is the budget," she said. "Without it, you cannot provide for schools."

She said schools must either cancel events or use their own funds for any expenses not in the budget.

"Needing something and having it in the budget are two separate things," Aranibar said.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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