Manatee schools to survey community on funding priorities

eearl@bradenton.comOctober 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District's new Citizen Budget Advisory Committee will survey the community about funding priorities for next year.

The volunteer committee, which met Monday night to discuss the survey, is comprised of certified public accountants and other finance and business professionals who check district financial reports for accuracy and make internal audit recommendations to the board.

The committee was formed as part of district reorganization in August after Shinn & Co. was named school district internal auditor in July.

The committee met in an introductory meeting last Thursday where Manatee Education Association President Pat Barber was chosen as chairwoman.

The community surveys will list a broad range of academic and non-academic school district funding needs. The survey will ask participants to prioritize each item,

"We are not looking for wordsmithing, but to see if what we are looking at will inform budget planning and strategic planning," said Robert Johnson, school district director of planning and performance.

Academic programs the community will be asked to prioritize include science,

technology, engineering and mathematics; international baccalaureate; college readiness, including advanced placement and dual enrollment; performing arts; dropout prevention; and teacher training.

Non-academic items on the survey include extracurricular activities; free student Internet access; school resource officer in every school; anti-gang programs; competitive salaries and benefits; up-to-date libraries; and media centers and parenting classes, which help parents assist children with homework and keep students focused on education.

The survey is intended for community members, parents and students to take at a designated meeting or on home computers.

Johnson said survey results will not dictate next year's funding.

"This is not to make a set plan, but to know what's important to people," Johnson said. "We want people to know that priorities are not guaranteed to be funded, but we will be considering their input. This is not a dictation with the community, but a dialogue with the community." The survey will also ask those taking it to list areas the school district needs to improve to better serve students and offer advice for the school district.

The committee plans to offer the survey at six sites around Manatee County in November. Tentative sites: Lakewood Ranch High School, King, Lincoln and Harlee middle schools and Buffalo Creek and G.D. Rogers Garden elementary schools.

The committee said survey meetings will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays in November, although dates and times are still tentative.

"We still have to nail down logistics," Johnson said. "We want to capture differences in the community in these meetings, both ethically and economically." The committee plans to have school district curriculum department staff at all survey sites to answer questions. The committee also hopes to offer food and child care onsite the nights of the surveys.

The committee is also working on distributing surveys to Bealls and Tropicana for greater participation in the county via company employees.

The survey will be available online. The committee said there are no limitations to prevents a person from taking a survey multiple times on a computer, and they do not plan on adding any, keeping users at libraries or community centers in mind.

"We are considering those who may abuse it less than people who may want access to it," Johnson said.

Johnson said he is not concerned about dealing with too many repeat takers considering the length of the survey.

"If it was a five-question survey I would be much more concerned. It's 70 questions," Johnson said.

Committee member Jackie Dezelski from the Manatee Chamber of Commerce said she wants survey language kept simple.

"I'm worried they might disengage if it is too technical or acronym heavy," Dezelski said.

Committee member Steve Graham, a former teacher in the Manatee County School District, suggested prioritizing specific items rather than vague categories such as "after school programs" or "technology."

"It is important for people to understand the questions on the survey," Graham said. Johnson said the survey is not meant to define what is funded and what is not, but to get a pulse of the most important educational issues for parents and community members.

The Citizen Budget Advisory Committee will meet next at 6 p.m. Oct. 29 before the surveys are administered.

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

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