Manatee School District rushes to correct budget-posting error

toconnor@bradenton.comSeptember 9, 2013 

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Manatee County School District Superintendent Rick Mills. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This report has been updated to clarify the Herald's specific request for the budget on Friday.

MANATEE -- Manatee County School District Superintendent Rick Mills reversed course on releasing the final version of the school budget Sunday.

Mills said he learned about 8 a.m. Sunday, while reading the Bradenton Herald, that he and his staff had failed to post the final version of the $566.9 million school board budget online.

The Herald had requested a copy of the budget Friday from the district.

Mills had the final budget posted Sunday afternoon with the vote for approval scheduled little more than a day away at 5:45 p.m. Monday in board chambers at the School Support Center in Bradenton.

"I appreciate board members and the people need to see the budget," Mills said Sunday afternoon. "Due to internal matters, it was not posted online when it should have been. I'm the superintendent and I'm responsible."

On Friday, Mills texted a response to the Herald to clarify what the "book" was that school board members had received. But he did not respond to a question about whether the final budget would be posted online, which is where earlier versions have been made available to the Herald and the public.

The confusion about posting the budget online continued Friday when Mike Barber, a spokesman for the Manatee County School District, said the budget would not be released online prior to board approval Monday. Barber acknowledged Sunday the information he had given out Friday was wrong. He attributed the error to the extreme state of transition the district has been in while trying to assemble the budget and a new administrative staff at the same time.

Mills said there was intent for the budget to be published. But there was also a breakdown somewhere between sending the budget to his Information Technology Department and actually posting it online, he said.

"I read it in your paper at about 8 a.m. this morning and started making phone calls to my staff," Mills said Sunday afternoon.

School Board member Julie Aranibar said Mills called her Sunday to explain. Aranibar took the late posting in stride saying the final pro

posal was very nearly the same as the tentative proposal made public earlier.

"He called me today and said I apologize, this ought to have been immediately released," Aranibar said. "It should have gone right up online. But the information isn't changing. It's the same information. The only thing that changes is the information on teachers. We need to look at this thing in perspective."

The Manatee County School District will hire 85 more teachers at a cost of $4.3 million to avoid overcrowding and state fines over the issue of class size.

Mills said he and his staff scrambled to release the fiscal year 2013-14 budget on the school district website Sunday.

"I take full responsibility for that oversight," Mills said in a press release issued Sunday by Barber.

The final budget was posted Sunday afternoon on the website under "Hot Topics." Budget-related documents online include the 2013-14 tentative budget, a letter from Mills on the budget, a school internal accounts payback schedule, 2013-14 budget overview and line-item budget.

Mills said two previous public hearings on the 2013-14 budget have been held -- one more than required by statute

"However, there has been a discrepancy regarding the release of the Final Budget that will be the subject of a third and final public hearing tomorrow evening," Mills is quoted in the press release as saying. "While the Final Budget was released to members of the Manatee County School Board late last week, it was not posted to our school district website as intended for the public to view."

Despite the posting gaffe, Mills said he believes the proposed budget has earned the support of the Manatee County School Board. He said he's answered several board member concerns regarding revenue streams and programs being funded.

Mills said no "substantive" problems remain from the school board member concerns.

"There were some clarity issues around the budget," Mills said. "I believe we've remedied them."

He also said he doesn't believe the late posting will violate any Sunshine Laws about required public notice.

"It was intended to be published," Mills said. "It was sent to IT to be published. There was nothing intentional around it. It was the best of intentions. We learned about it through the paper, through board and community members and took the appropriate action to correct it."

There are no major changes included in the final budget, Mills said, from the tentative budget published earlier. He said the budget versions were "99.6 percent" the same with roughly one dozen line changes in the final proposal from the earlier tentative 488-page version.

"I can tell you I completely understand the lack of trust around the budget for the school district, which is why we're tried to be very transparent around the budget throughout," Mills said.

Terry O'Connor, Bradenton Herald night metro editor, can be reached at toconnor@bradenton.com or by calling 941-745-7040.

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