State transition team recommends Manatee school district to cut staff

eearl@bradenton.comApril 27, 2013 

MANATEE -- A transition team brought in to help Superintendent Rick Mills reorganize the district in his first 100 days is recommending that the district cut staff to meet its budget.

The team plans to have the recommendation report ready for the district by June 1. But Bill Vogel, the team leader and former superintendent of Seminole schools, said the team recommends that the district go forward with 180 staff eliminations by readjusting the student-to-teacher classroom ratios that exceeded state requirements this year.

Vogel and the team hope that attrition will take care of most of the job eliminations as employees retire, transfer to other districts or leave the area.

Still, school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter warned that the district must be prepared to consolidate positions and lay off workers. Cutting personnel is the biggest key to reduce district spending and building state-mandated reserves, both Vogel and Carpenter said.

By July 1, the district plans to have 72 fewer elementary school teachers, 13 fewer middle school teachers and 11 fewer high school teachers, depending on student population and class sizes. The transition team wants to see the district's plans for the cuts.

Mills has not presented a plan yet, but personnel accounts for 80 percent of the district's costs. The district will need to work quickly to figure out how and when they will reduce staff to meet the July 1 deadline.

"You have to look at the core functions of positions and do an assessment," Carpenter said. "You just can't say that tomorrow you're doing eliminations."

The Florida Department of Education is also keeping a watchful eye on the district, which will not meet its reserve requirements for the third consecutive year.

The district must send written notification to the state Department of Education commissioner explaining why the Manatee County School District expects to have only $100,000 in its reserves by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"It needs to be done quickly," Carpenter said. "We can't keep ignoring it."

Mills did not notify the state this week, but says he plans on addressing it this week.

Since the district's reserves are projected to fall far below 2.2 percent, the commissioner is likely to appoint a financial emergency board within 14 days to assist the district if it does not offer a clear, reasonable plan to fix its finances in the coming fiscal year.

The emergency financial boards typically deal with districts in a state of "financial emergency," failing to pay debts on time, ignoring claims from creditors and not making contributions to retirement and pension plans.

While Manatee County does not meet this criteria, they are still targeted because it is far below requirements for a healthy reserve. State law mandates a 3 percent reserve -- or $10 million in Manatee County's case. The state has already given the district a break. Instead of the required 3 percent fund balance, the state approved 2.2 percent for this fiscal year because of its budget woes.

Janice Hutchison, CPA and educational policy consultant at the Florida Department of Education, said an emergency board could help implement a plan at the district's discretion to help determine spending cuts. Hutchison said that even though the district has not met the state-required reserves for three consecutive years, there will be no punitive action taken.

"We are more about assistance than oversight," Hutchison said. "We want to help and not dictate."

Mills said he doubts that the school district will be able to find the $6.7 million needed in the reserves, or even come close. Currently the district estimates its fund balance will be only .03 percent, or $100,000.

"Everything just keeps adding up," Mills said.

Mills said he is looking for spending cuts wherever possible. Anything not required for students' health and safety will be considered. Mills said he plans to talk with staff about spending cuts this week.

"The Manatee County School District's budget for this school year is under close scrutiny by me, school district staff and by the Transition Team of educational professionals," Mills said in a press release Friday.

Vogel said that during their five days in Manatee County, the transition team interviewed 30 to 40 staff and community members, including the school board members, the citizens advisory group, citizens advisory group member and CPA Byron Shinn, internal audit committee chairwoman Bobbie Windham and citizens advisory group member and technology expert Richard Green.

The team also visited a few schools and researched records. Team members, made up of human resource, finance and technology experts from the state, have been comparing Manatee County schools' data to all school districts in the state, looking at trends in other districts' reserves and reviewing the district's audit reports.

"We have been talking to everyone who can give perspective on the district's concerns," Vogel said. "We covered a lot of ground in five days." In the fall, a monitoring team from the Florida Association of District Superintendents will come to observe progress after the district has had time to review the recommendations.

Carpenter said Mills and Vogel should also consider getting help from the emergency finance board.

"I am interested in solid ideas and potential help," Carpenter said. "We need as much help as we can get."

She hopes the transition team's report comes back sooner than June 1.

"There are great things going on in the schools, and I want to see the problems fixed," Carpenter said.

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

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