Budget plan puts Manatee County school district back on solid ground

July 31, 2013 

In quite the quick turnabout from a deep deficit, the Manatee County School District's tentative 2013-2014 budget accomplishes a financial recovery under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

When Superintendent Rick Mills submitted the district's recovery plan to the Florida Department of Education for approval last month -- with the possibility of a state takeover should the proposal have been rejected -- the school system's reserve account only contained about $100,000. The school board and district officials now expect to meet the state-mandated 3 percent by next June -- or $10.3 million. The district failed to meet that fund balance the past two years.

Plus, the budget allocates $6.3 million to cover the 2012-2013 deficit. Both allocations will close the door on past spending blunders.

Though the board approved a tentative $565 million outline on Monday, a complete line-tem budget has yet to become public. While unusually late this year, the district's new leadership team has only been on board for three to four months and solving the deficit dilemma took top priority. The elimination of 180 teachers and 96 district staff were among the early measures.

While the millage rate will fall .017 to 7.572, the district's revenue will rise $5.3 million due to an increase in property values.

This should accomplish the district's goal of financial stability by the end of the coming fiscal year.

Illuminating comments

Comments out of the Monday and Thursday school board meetings illuminate the daunting budget process, the commitment to public disclosure and the sea change within the district.

On balancing the budget, deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall highlighted the new and proper accounting system: "The expenditures and revenues match, and this is the first time in a long time."

On ensuring visibility, board chair Karen Carpenter pinpointed past dishonesty that brought sharp protests from the public and damaged trust: "Making mistakes is one thing, but covering them up is not a good thing to do."

On the transition for public transparency in the budget process, Mills pledged: "We are welcoming of the opportunity for community members to sit down with the finance team to ask questions about the budget."

That fresh approach will be appreciated once the full line-item budget is released to the public some time ahead of the board's next public meeting on the matter, on Aug. 29.

This is an extra public hearing not required by the state, another sign of the determined effort to rebuild public trust -- which is already occurring.

In the meantime, the public can access the superintendent's budget blueprint online, linked to this editorial on www.bradenton.com/opinion. It's also on the district's website, www.manatee.k12.fl.us/

Next to a balanced budget and a healthy savings account, the district's other three top priorities merit attention: teacher pay increases by the state and additional compensation for other district employees; partial restoration of school internal funds the district absorbed during the financial meltdown, and most important, realigning resources to improve student achievement.

The public has been demanding a stronger commitment to student education for years. While we await the details on how this will be accomplished, the vow is encouraging. As is the district's budget outline.

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