The Manatee County School Board puts off budget decision

eearl@bradenton.comSeptember 10, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board rescheduled approval of the final 2013-14 budget Monday after acknowledging it had not posted the proposal for the public in a timely fashion.

Following the advice of Superintendent Rick Mills, the school board voted unanimously Monday to postpone approval of the final budget to Tuesday, Sept. 17.

The state deadline for Manatee County to approve its final school district budget is Sept. 18, leaving no time for the decision to be postponed again.

"If we finalize the budget later than the 18th, it puts all of our state funding at risk," said Michael Boyer, district chief financial officer.

State funding could be in jeopardy with a late approval anyway because the state could redistribute the funds.

"That is not an option," school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter said.

The decision to pick Sept. 17 as the decisive date was tabled until the last item of the meeting.

Mills said he suggested pushing back the day of the vote because of the late re

lease of final budget to the public. The final budget was not available online for public viewing until Sunday morning, two days after the school district indicated to the Bradenton Herald it would not post the budget at all until after Monday's school board vote.

Mills would not comment on why the final budget was not posted sooner. Sunday he issued a release taking responsibility for the failure to post.

Deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall said the delayed budget posting was the result of a miscommunication.

"It is unfortunate that the community didn't give us the benefit of the doubt," Hall said. "Throughout the whole process we have been transparent and put everything out."

School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner said he agreed with postponing the budget vote to give the community more time to review the $566.9 million budget, even if it did mean pushing the approval to the last minute.

"I value the insight of the community," Miner said. "It would seem appropriate if we commenced the hearing and had presentations and allowed audience to speak and share thoughts and continued next week. If we have to do it on Tuesday, then we do it on Tuesday. Throughout the year, the budget is amended. I want the public to examine and comment on it."

School board members had their own budget questions and concerns Monday.

School board member Bob Gause said a few changes in the budget caused him to raise an eyebrow.

"Schools grew, or dropped, by several hundred thousand dollars, but most were within pennies of the line item budget," Gause said. "Does that money represent extra teaching positions?"

Changes between the tentative budget and the final budget include the addition of 85 teachers required by increased enrollment, a change discussed at a public hearing Aug. 29. About $1 million will come from the school district budget to support hiring the new teachers. Boyer said the total cost will be $4.5 million, with the remainder coming from state and Title I funding.

The final budget does not give a breakdown of where the 85 new teachers are going specifically.

As in the line-item budget, the final budget shows total personnel costs and capital outlay costs per school, but there is no specific breakdown of these costs, such as the number of teachers at each school.

"There is quite a bit in the budget reserves that needs to be pushed up for schools," Boyer said. "We did not have time to load the budget school by school, but the money is there to do that."

The school district website shows teachers needed at Rogers Garden Elementary, Palmetto High, Haile Middle, Bayshore High, Lakewood Ranch High, Lee Middle, Manatee High, Sugg Middle and Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary.

Boyer said the final budget also shows it will cost $1.2 million for five elementary schools required by the state to add an extra hour of reading instruction to each school day.

Boyer said that with revenue, the district ends up with a balanced budget.

School board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar said there still has not been discussion about sales tax revenue.

"I didn't see where sales tax revenue went to pay off the deficit," Aranibar said.

The final budget shows a 7.572 millage rate, a slight decrease from 7.589 mills last year, which will still bring the school district increased revenue due to increased property values.

Hall said the entire budget process will start sooner next year.

"We are enhancing the reporting format and moving process back to make sure things happen earlier," Hall said.

Boyer said the budget is an improvement compared with previous years because it includes a financial summary of the Manatee Technical Institute as well as alternative schools.

"This was not in prior budgets," Boyer said.

The school board also approved the sale of the Bill Owens Annex, better known as the "Checkers" property.

In a 4-0 vote, the school board approved to sell the property to Route 32 Investments LLC. for $2.07 million. Gause recused himself from the vote because of potential conflict with his consulting firm Allison Gause.

Route 32 investments is a private investment firm. Hall said the company has not identified what it will do with property, which is valued at $1.6 million.

"This is a great deal for the school district," Hall said.

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

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