Manatee County school budget rights district's financial ship

September 22, 2013 

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Manatee County School Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter and Superintendent Rick Mills listen as Deputy Superintendent Don Hall addresses school district officials recently regarding the 2013-14 budget.GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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What a tremendous difference a year makes. In September 2012 the Manatee County school district fell into a financial abyss with a multimillion deficit amid improper accounting. One school board member described the desperate plight as a "big nasty surprise" that constituted "gross negligence."

Last Tuesday, the school board gave final approval to a $568 million budget that rights the district's fiscal ship. Superintendent Rick Mills and district administrators worked long hours in an extremely tighter time frame than usual to balance the budget and yet come up with a reserve account that meets state requirements.

The remarkable turnaround lifts the district out of the "quicksand of the past," as Mills described the dire financial circumstances of the last few years during Tuesday's board meeting.

The last-minute budget approval came only the day before the state deadline, reflecting the emergency-like predicament.

But to the district's credit, the final meeting allowed the public another opportunity to comment.

That somewhat alleviated the disappointment about transparency since the district misfired on posting the budget online in a timely manner to permit taxpayer scrutiny. Thus, the board postponed budget approval until Tuesday to provide the public time to digest the spending plan.

While the 2013-2014 budget holds a slight decrease in the millage rate -- down .22 to 7.57 mills -- the district's revenue will rise due to an increase in property values.

There's much to appreciate in the budget. Teachers will be receiving raises as will support staff. Non-union employees are in line for pay increases as well upon school board approval.

Senior staff, though, are excluded from salary hikes, a nod to public concerns about spending on top employees. The administration also chopped 80 positions out of district staff, another positive for taxpayers; that alone saved $4.2 million.

The health insurance fund, which had operated at a deficit and caused public outrage, is now expected to exceed the reserve requirement by year's end -- quite a reversal.

With several hundred more students and additional teachers to be hired, the Manatee County school district is finally back on track. The budgeting process for the 2014-2015 school year is set to begin next month, and this year's dash to the finish line is now history.

Moving forward, Mills addressed what parents of schoolchildren, the business community and everyone involved in the county's economic development are most concerned about:

"It's now time to turn our full attention to what matters most, and that is supporting our schools and teachers in raising the achievement levels of our more than 46,000 students."

The superintendent's new administrative team can now focus on raising the education bar and continue to realign resources to improve student achievement, a very welcome pivot from budgetary matters for a district mired in 47th place among Florida's 67 school systems.

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