'Excruciating' budget process continues for Manatee schools

eearl@bradenton.comJuly 26, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board met Thursday to discuss the proposed budget but deferred approving millage rates or the budget until a public hearing at 5:45 p.m. Monday.

The board will vote Monday to approve a millage rate that brings in increased tax revenue as well as the tentative budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

School board chairwoman Karen Carpenter expressed concern over the lack of detail in the 17-page budget proposal unveiled Thursday, saying a comparison with last year's budget should have been included.

"It has been a challenging year," Carpenter said. "We wish there were more months to address this budget."

Michael Boyer, school district chief financial officer, said preparing the budget proposal was "excruciating."

"We have built the most legitimate budget in numerous years," Boyer said in a presentation to the school board. "Doing it right was painful."

Boyer said the tentative budget must have no unbudgeted expenses and begin to rebuild a state-required $10.3 million reserve.

Proposed budget cuts include:

• A reduction of $514,929, or 12.43 percent, in the media service and school library budget.

• A decrease of $610,081, or 69.56 percent, in the instructional technology budget.

Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instruction, said eight instructional specialist positions were cut. The positions were to provide technology service to schools.

"This is something we are not ready for because of our lack of technology and programs," Greene said. "We are light years behind."

Superintendent Rick Mills said he couldn't give the job description of an instructional specialist.

"When I was briefed, we couldn't even get our hands around what they did," Mills said.

Hall said improving classroom technology is something the district will work on once a new chief information officer is in place.

"The reality is that the hardware and bandwidth needed for the technology do not exist," Hall said. "We needed to make that cut in personnel to get the budget in alignment."

The proposed budget also calls for a $12.7 million, or a 6.21 percent increase, in the instructional services budget. The $218 million instructional service budget includes salaries, benefits, school supplies, advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs and the athletics and art departments, Greene said.

School board member Robert Gause said one of his biggest concerns is budgeting programs properly.

"There needs to be a good effort to protect student services," Gause said.

The increased instructional services budget also includes the transition into the Common Core curriculum and improving school grades.

"School grades will be out Friday, and they are not where they should be," Greene said.

Greene said the budget increase also allows for Gov. Rick Scott's teacher raises, although she said the district does not know what those will be yet.

Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said the governor recommended a $2,500 raise for each teacher but it is almost certain there will not be enough to give that amount to every teacher.

Barber said the union will negotiate raise amounts with the school district but a date for negotiation is not yet set.

"It is a defined pot that has to be spread fairly," Barber said. "We are anxious to get some money in the hands of teachers and employees as soon as possible,"

The proposed budget also includes a decrease of $650,821, or 5.3 percent, in the student transportation budget.

Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said this does not mean more cuts for the bus driver staff or services. Hall said it is a matter of cutting unfilled positions.

In addition to approving a tentative budget, the school board will approve the millage rate Monday. While the millage will stay close to the same as last year with a .017 decrease, taxes will increase with higher property tax values and a 2.16 percent rollback rate, leading to higher revenue for the school district.

Boyer said a home valued at $171,000 will see a tax decrease of $2.48. Because property assessments are up 4.04 percent, actual tax decreases are unlikely.

The school district is expected to bring in $196 million in revenue.

Mills said there has been public concern on why the budget is being approached differently. The budget was not made available to school board members until 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, and the proposed budget was not online the day of the meeting.

"I want to make it clear that it is important that we inform the public of our budget," Mills said.

Mills said Thursday in a letter to district employees: "Because of the transition of the district leadership since last September, the budget process for the 2013-14 school year started seven to eight months later than typical. The ideal budget development process begins almost a year in advance with a series of workshops and meetings of the school board, staff and community to develop budget guidelines, priorities and expectations for the following school year."

Carpenter said she wants to ensure visibility throughout the budget process.

"Making mistakes is one thing, but covering them up is not a good thing to do," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said in the short time she has been on the board, she has not been satisfied with the budget workshop and committee outcomes, and this year the board has not had any budget workshops.

Carpenter said Thursday she equates approving the budget to remodeling a house: While some rooms in the house are there, the central electrical and plumbing elements are missing.

Hall said a line-item budget for the school board and the public is "not supposed to exist yet."

The school board will not vote to adopt the budget until Sept. 9.

"What we are proposing tonight is the minimal requirement from the state," Hall said. "This will evolve all the way through July, the end of August and up to September."

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

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