Action plan addresses Manatee school district's budget failings

eearl@bradenton.comApril 12, 2013 

MANATEE -- Rick Mills, superintendent of the Manatee County School District, released an aggressive action plan Friday for fixing the problems auditors found in the school district's budget and restoring the public's confidence in the school district.

The plan includes reinstating a sales tax accountability committee, restoring money to the Worker's Compensation fund, and developing a weekly snapshot of the budget and student performance.

The plan includes a point person and support team responsible for each fix as well as a timeline detailing when each item should be completed. Mills said the plan is designed so that the district can quickly repair the budget and rebuild the fund balance.

"I don't think we have a lot of choice not to move quickly," Mills said. "We have to close out the budget this year, we must meet the 2.2 percent fund balance for the state and be able to put together a budget for next year."

Internal and external audits of the school district's finances found that the district mishandled state and federal funds, including Title I grants earmarked for disadvantaged students, special education funds, and that it wasn't contributing enough money to cover its worker's compensations obligations. The district has been working with the state to fix the problems so that it doesn't face sanctions or fines from the state or federal government.

The 20-page action plan is made up of charts describing each goal, the point person and support team and key tasks to be accomplished, with an owner for each task and target completion date. There are 17 specific items uncovered in the audit and comprehensive financial report, including capital funds, cash management, self-insurance plans and vacation pay, as well as the three district goals.

The district has already addressed and repaired five other findings from the audit.

After meeting with the school board on Monday and getting community and board input, Mills brought his senior staff together to develop the plan.

"It was important that everyone understand their role," Mills said.

After meeting Tuesday, each team gathered to make sure every issue pointed out in the audits were addressed in the plan, all of the responsibilities were assigned and that everyone understood the timeline.

Mills met with the team again on Thursday to make sure every requirement from the audit findings was addressed.

"We have a lot of moving pieces in place," Mills said.

Top priorities across the district included reinstating the Sales Tax Accountability Committee. Mills said both the public and the school board were in favor of that during Monday night's meeting.

Julie Aranibar, vice chairwoman for the school board, said the committee is vital to making sure the district is accountable. Aranibar was on the school tax accountability committee before she was elected to the school board.

The committee examines whether the tax money is being used appropriately by getting regular reports from external and internal audits.

The committee, which oversees the sales tax implemented to build schools when Manatee County's population was skyrocketing, could also offer some solutions on what to do with schools that are now underutilized, Aranibar said.

"The school district is only at 65 percent of its capacity," Aranibar said. "Underutilized school buildings could be sold to become assisted living facilities. These are the types of questions that the committee could raise."

In meeting with his senior staff and going over the options for restoring the Worker's Compensation Fund, the team decided to lower the compensation levels, recalculate the required amounts and repay the federal government for the money it was overcharged.

"The collective group felt that was the best option," Mills said.

Karen Carpenter, the school board's chairwoman, said Friday that she had not had an opportunity to study the action plan, but she added that she is very impressed with Mills' leadership.

"If something comes up, he focuses on it and he solves it," Carpenter said, citing his reorganization plan and his concentration on policies so far in his short tenure as superintendent.

"He is looking at building a stronger organization with more structure," Carpenter said. "He is exceeding my expectations with his velocity, energy and grasp on issues."

Aranibar said she, too, is pleased with Mills' action plan.

"He is going through every department and budget, assessing them and making a plan," Aranibar said. "He is doing exactly what a superintendent should be doing."

To make sure everyone stays on track and understands exactly how the district is performing, Mills is having the district develop a "Performance Dashboard" for the entire school district.

The dashboard, a one-page, easy to read report, is being developed to monitor the district's financial stability, the district's ranking in the state and student success. The dashboard will offer specific measurements in each category.

School board member Bob Gause supports the idea of the dashboard.

Gause said that when trying to figure out a budget, having a dashboard is like having a whole group of information contained in one place versus one hundred different line items.

"It makes things easier to spot at a glance," Gause said. "I don't want us to ever go back to where we just were."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on twitter@ericabearl.

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