Manatee schools have ‘potential plan’ for new budget crisis

eearl@bradenton.comOctober 30, 2013 

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Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills listens to public comments during a school board meeting earlier this month. FILE PHOTO/PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- News of $3.9 million in unaccounted costs in the Manatee County School District budget was like deja vu for some school board members, who left Monday's meeting frustrated and disheartened.

School board member Bob Gause said he doesn't know how these costs weren't noticed, while board member David Miner questioned how it was different from problems in the previous budget year. Other school board members have been silent on the district's budget woes and did not return calls Tuesday.

"I am glad they are bringing it to our attention," Gause said. "It's frustrating. I know Mr. Hall is working hard to make sure that everything is addressed. We just need to work through it and limit all spending as much as possible to get through this."

The Manatee County School District is looking at ways to correct the $3.9 million shortfall revealed at the school board meeting Monday.

Costs not included in the district's final budget approved and submitted to the state in September include:

• $800,000 in salaried for Central High School teacher salaries transitioned into new schools after the closure;

• $489,000 to 27 hire Exceptional Student Education paraprofessionals to support students without teaching aides; and

• $717,000 to hire seven gifted teachers and nine Volunteer Pre-Kindergarten teachers to alleviate overcrowding in Exceptional Student Education classrooms

Hall and Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer plan to limit spending in the district's central offices.

The district is suggesting cutting $1 million from the central office budget, although details of potential cuts have not been released.

"We have to take the lead on this," Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said Monday.

Hall also suggested using central office employees as substitute teachers, rather than contracting with substitutes, to save about $100,000.

Gause said the school district can save money by using central office substitutes, even though the schools have already received their budget allocations for substitutes.

"The schools do have budgets for substitutes, which is a legitimate need," Gause said. "What I think Don is suggesting is that if you want to spend the money on a substitute, a better way would

be to call the central office to get a sub from the substitute pool to serve as a sub for the day."

Gause said the substitute money can also be used in other ways if the district does implement central office substitutes.

"The benefit of putting people from the central office is that they will get time in the classroom," Gause said. "The downside is that they would not be working on their job that day. It would be a different kind of cost."

Bill Vogel, an executive coach on the school district transition team, said plans proposed to correct the budget focus on imbalances in Exceptional Student Education classrooms.

"ESE is a major issue in taking care of the deficiencies that were uncovered," Vogel said. "Issues came up that were unknown when the budget went through. (Mills) is trying to be transparent, whether it's good or whether it's not."

Vogel said Mills did not inform him about the details of the corrective plan.

"He indicated that he has already addressed how he plans to cover most of the shortfall," Vogel said.

Vogel said he does not talk closely about the budget since the transition team made its recommendations.

"My take is that these are things that came up after the budget was approved," Vogel said.

Steve Valley, communications director for the Manatee County School District, said the plan addressed at the meeting Monday night is still tentative.

"It's important to note that all of the items listed on this slide are "potential" corrective measures that may begin in November," Valley said in an email Tuesday to the Bradenton Herald. "We will continue to monitor them as we move forward."

Valley said the $1 million reduction in the central office budget is expected to come from possible departmental budget cuts.

"Specific departments have not been identified, but all are being looked at," Valley said.

Valley also said an additional $150,000 could potentially be saved with staffing cuts since the Board recently approved suspending several former administrators without pay.

Those administrators suspended Monday night were linked to a school district investigation into Rod Frazier, a former parent liaison and assistant football coach at Manatee High School.

Valley said the district elected to answer the media and public's budget questions in an op/ed piece Valley submitted to the Bradenton Herald. It can be found on page 6B.

Tiffany Cowie, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Education, said it is unlikely the district will need to resubmit a budget plan to the state, although she was not able to confirm Tuesday.

Cowie said the state has not given the school district any specific guidelines for where it must cut costs.

"We haven't taken over their finances in any way," Cowie said.

The school district is also bracing for $410,000 in penalties from fiscal year 2012-13 based on audit findings.

The district hopes to recover $2.95 million from its corrective plan and ,if successful in identifying and marketing surplus property, covering the remaining $950,000 shortfall with property sales.

Since approving the final budget, the school district has been counting on property sales to supplement the budget this fiscal year.

"Let's hope they do sell," Gause said. "It's scary, but it is good to have the information, too. It is first step in solving the problem."

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

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