Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte schools meet on business issues

eearl@bradenton.comAugust 8, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte county school boards met Wednesday at the Charlotte County School Board to discuss issues including updating board policies, internal audits and teacher raises.

"We have to revamp our policies. Many have not been updated since about 2005-06," school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter said Wednesday. "This is continuing education for board members."

Carpenter said she would like to upgrade several board policies.

"It's 600 pages. Want to start at beginning?" Carpenter said. "There have been legislative changes since 2005-06."

The Manatee County School Board also sought opinion on its recent decision to outsource internal audits.

Carpenter said the meeting gave the school board the opportunity to learn what surrounding districts are doing.

"Sometimes I come to these meetings with sibling envy," Carpenter said.

Discussions revolved around business operations, not academics.

A shared concern is negotiating teacher salary increases.

Lori White, superintendent of Sarasota County schools, said her district is starting the bargaining process much later than usual.

"We need to know the challenges, understand the timeline and start bargaining next week," White said.

Doug Whittaker, superintendent of Charlotte County schools, said one of the challenges is to decide how much of a raise each district will be able to give teachers.

"There is so much press about everyone getting $2,500, and I think some will be surprised when their share isn't that much," Whittaker said.

Whittaker said Charlotte County also needs to move forward with union negotiations.

Rick Mills, Manatee County superintendent, said his school district will negotiate with the Manatee Education Association within the next week.

"We want to maximize the allocation for salary increases, and I am hopeful to have closure on a contract around this in the next two to three weeks," Mills said.

Shirley Brown, Sarasota school board vice chairwoman, said it is "frustrating" Gov. Rick Scott said teacher raises would be around $2,500.

"He set a hard and fast dollar amount when you can't put an exact number on that," Brown said. "We have to make the decision based on numbers that are not here yet for enrollment."

Legislative liaison and consultant Vern Crawford told school board members the Legislature is "watching extremely closely" how teacher raises are doled out.

"Local school districts and unions can negotiate," Crawford said. "But the message given is to get this settled."

The Manatee County School Board will hold a workshop Monday to go over options for revamping policies.

Lee Swift, Charlotte County School Board chairman, said his school district updated its policies in-house and with an outside firm.

"We have done it both ways, but the first time we handled this ourselves, it was painful," Swift said.

Swift recommended hiring the board bylaws and policies firm Neola.

Swift said using an outside firm such as Neola is simpler, and the firms bring any statutory changes to the board's attention.

"It is ongoing," Swift said. "Once you are caught up it is a lot easier to keep it up in an ongoing basis."

Mills said he will look into hiring an outside firm at the board workshop Monday afternoon.

Board policy firms such as Neola charge an annual fee and an upfront fee.

White said Sarasota County schools also went through the "painful" process a few years ago to revamp policies.

"We use a company to outsource updates," White said. "It is true that you have to keep up with it. Our priority is being transparent on procedures, and making those available online."

Swift said when hiring a firm, the Manatee school board must express specific concerns for the district.

"No matter who you hire, it is your board's policies, and have to make them your own for you and your community," Swift said.

Sarasota County school board member Carol Todd suggested the Manatee County School District not get too bogged down with policy wording.

"You will get mired in places you don't need to be mired in word-smithing. Look at the broader issues," Todd said.

The Manatee County School Board also discussed outsourcing internal audit activities to Shinn and Co. The board expanded its audit committee by accepting nine volunteer certified public accountants.

"We are moving from an in-house function and an audit committee that was rocky in terms of how it worked to an outsourced function, and we are welcoming suggestions and ideas for how to move forward with that," Carpenter said.

White said the Sarasota County school district has eight or nine members on its volunteer audit committee, but they are not all CPAs.

"Some are industry workers, insurance brokers and lawyers," White said.

Whittaker said Charlotte schools also use an outside firm for internal accounts. Whittaker recommended publicly recognizing schools with clean audits, an idea Carpenter said would "elevate standards."

"You need to find the right publicity," Brown said. "You need to find places to raise flags whenever you find the opportunity and show the public when you have it together."

Whittaker said internal Charlotte County account audits occur over several months as the firm checks records school by school. Charlotte County has 21 public schools versus Manatee County's 53.

Carpenter said the board wants to take a "SWAT team" approach to get the audits done this month, which Whittaker said could work.

Charlotte and Sarasota County school board members said the Manatee school board made a good decision by outsourcing internal auditing.

"We embrace external eyes to provide us with info we can use to move the district forward," Todd said.

Sarasota school board chairwoman Jane Goodwin said her district always looks at its finances a year in advance.

"We look past just this school year and the money we have now," Goodwin said. "We started doing that about three years ago."

"We are getting it all together," school board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar said with a laugh.

Swift said the annual joint meetings help unify the school districts.

"The fact that we are including each other gives us a bigger impact," Swift said. "We can get in there and fight together and hopefully do good things for kids and student achievement."

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

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