Manatee County School District to hold final budget hearing Tuesday

eearl@bradenton.comSeptember 15, 2013 

MANATEE -- Both the State Department of Education and the public are keeping watch on the Manatee County School district's budget process as the school district works to meet the deadline for submitting its final budget to the state.

The school board will hold a final public hearing on the budget Tuesday. The deadline for approval of the final budget is Wednesday.

School board members will have one last opportunity to make changes to the budget Tuesday night before adopting it. It is also the last chance for the public to voice their opinions about the budget before it becomes final.

The budget this year has come under more scrutiny than in past years, after a $6.3 million deficit in the last fiscal year led the district to freeze the budget and to borrow money from internal funds at schools across the district. That raised the ire of parents and officials across the county.

While the school board has not yet approved the budget, the district has already begun spending on the district's needs this year. School budgets are no longer frozen and the district has repaid about one-third of the money it borrowed from schools.

Stephen Valley, spokesman for the Manatee County School District, said the savings to make up the $6.3 million deficit and restore reserves to $10.3 million come from the financial recovery plan, which can be found on Page 7 of the final budget. The plan claims to save the district $21.9 million, but does not detail all of the savings.

The recovery plan, which was approved by the school board in June, included the elimination of 182 teacher

positions as the bulk of the district's savings at about $11 million.

Valley said the savings still apply even though the district rehired 69 teachers and now is working to hire 85 additional teachers to meet the class size amendment.

"The district had already budgeted $1 million for expected growth," Valley said.

Valley said most of the 85 teachers will be paid for by state and Title 1 funds, and because they have less experience, they will be on the lower end of the pay scale.

According to data released from the district, it realized an $11 million savings by cutting the 182 teaching positions, but it only cost $4.5 million to hire a total of 154 teachers.

Jim Germer, a certified public accountant in Bradenton, said that "seems like a big jump."

"It is possible that they are replacing higher earning teachers with entry-level teachers," Germer said.

Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said she does not know where the discrepancy comes from.

"Not all who were non-renewed were first-year teachers, but they all were annual teachers varying in degrees of experience," Barber said. "The district could be planning on hiring first-year teachers, but I don't know how they could count on that."

Valley said the district credits the cost difference to replacing retired teachers at the higher end of the pay scale. Valley said 65 of the positions that were cut after the school year were vacancies from retirements and other higher earners leaving the district.

"A good majority of these teachers were on the higher end of the pay scale, so you also have to take that into consideration as all of the teachers rehired were on the lower end of the pay scale, which would account for less funds to rehire," Valley said.

Other cuts in the budget include eliminating 80 positions from the district office, at a savings of about $4.2 million.

The school board recently approved the sale for the Owens Annex "Checkers" property for $2.07 million, which will go into the district's general fund. Also, the closing of Central High School makes up $1.6 million in district savings.

Keeping school district buildings at 77 degrees, referred to as "energy costs savings,' are estimated at $500,000.

Other savings, such as selling district vehicles and outsourcing the district's internal auditing instead of having an internal auditing department, saved the district just less than $200,000 each.

Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said the state is being hands-off in the budget process, despite Manatee's late budget schedule and a three-year history of not meeting the state-mandate reserve of 3 percent.

Bill Vogel, a former superintendent of Seminole County who sat on the Manatee County School District's transition team and citizens advisory group, said it could be possible for a school district to lose state funding by approving the final budget so close to deadline. But he said such a move is rare.

"There is no provision that requires the Department of Education to withhold funds due to budget advertising and final hearing scheduling issues," Etters said.

Vogel said he supports the board's decision to move budget approval to Tuesday, allowing the public an opportunity to express their opinions and feelings about the budget. Vogel said if the board does not submit the budget by the Sept. 18 deadline, the district could be faced with sanctions.

"One part of the budget comes from local property taxes, and the other comes from state funding. If the board does not approve the budget, funds at the state level would be in jeopardy," Vogel said.

Vogel said the school district has learned from this budget process.

"They had to play catch-up from the beginning of the process this year," Vogel said.

"Normally the process begins shortly after school starts, in October or November. They had an extremely late start this year because of financial challenges and changes in leadership."

Superintendent Rick Mills said at last Monday's meeting that the district will start the budget process for the 2014-15 budget year next month.

"For next year, the district is working on a plan so that the budget will not conclude at the last day," Vogel said. "It will be well before the state-imposed deadlines."

Once the budget is approved this year, Etters said the school board will still be able to make major and minor adjustments to the budget.

"The budget may be revised at any time prior to adoption by the board," Etters said. " As new information or circumstances change during the year, the school board revises the budget as necessary. A school board is a body corporate and does not require approval or assistance from the department to make changes to the budget, even major adjustments."

Vogel said the biggest change in the budget so far are the additional 85 teachers to help the district avoid financial penalties imposed through the class size amendment, as well as to avoid overcrowding in schools.

Positions are open for reading coaches, teachers, aides and exceptional student education teachers at Rogers Garden Elementary, Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary, Palm View Elementary, Samoset Elementary, Braden River Elementary, Gullett Elementary, Daughtrey Elementary, Wakeland Elementary, Willis Elementary, Oneco Elementary, Mills Elementary, Bayshore Elementary, Haile Middle, Lee Middle, Harllee Middle, Buffalo Creek Middle, Palmetto High, Lakewood Ranch High, Bayshore High and Manatee High schools.

Etters said districts will not be penalized for being out of compliance with the class size amendment until the state receives the counts in October from an enrollment survey.

The Manatee County School District is not currently paying any penalties, Etters noted, and school districts may not have to pay until January if they do not make corrections to their class sizes.

"Districts will have the opportunity to make corrections until the middle of November," Etters said. "The counts are not final until mid- to late January."

A new law also allows school districts to get most fines for violating the class size amendment returned to them. The law requires school districts out of compliance with the class size amendment in January to submit a plan to correct the class sizes. Etters said that school districts can get up to 75 percent of their fines back.

"The law only requires that the district submit a plan," Etters said.

Etters said this is the third year this law has been in effect.

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

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