Eerie case of deja vu for Manatee County school district budget shortfall

October 31, 2013 

Eerie. Once again, the Manatee County school district has a multimillion dollar mess in unaccounted costs in the budget. Last year's $7.5 million deficit did not become public knowledge until the fiscal year had all but expired. This year's $3.9 million shortfall comes only weeks into the new budget year.

This came as a surprise to the school board, informed of the budgeting oversights at Monday's regular meeting. A large portion of the accounting errors comes from teacher salaries that had not been plugged into the 2013-2014 budget -- similar to last year's mistakes. How could this happen again?

And could this rattle public confidence in a fairly new administration eager to win back the trust lost over several years of mistakes and missteps from the previous leadership?

To its credit, this administration owned up to being responsible for "oversights and miscoding for $1.5 million," as Steve Valley, the district's director of communication and family-community engagement, wrote in a commentary published in Wednesday's Herald.

That amount came about to correct state compliance deficiencies in the exceptional student education program. The hiring of dozens of new teachers and other ESE costs resulted in those unanticipated expenses.

Over last summer, the administration admitted the ESE program was "broken" with an overhaul in the offing. That is proving to be costly but necessary to serve disabled students. Still, how did the district fail to budget these expenses?

To help cover last year's budget deficit, the district laid off 185 teachers over the summer and then rehired 69 in August. But in predicting an enrollment decline of some 1,000 students, administrators hired too few as an additional 900 students enrolled.

And how the district could forget to add $800,000 to the budget for the relocation of Central High teachers after the alternative school's closure is puzzling to say the least. But again, the district is not dodging tough questions. "That was an oversight that we own," Superintendent Rick Mills stated at Monday's board meeting.

The district chief financial officer, Michael Boyer, echoed that remark by stating: "We made an error in the transition of Central teachers to each high school." The honesty is refreshing.

The administration's commitment to corrective measures deserves close scrutiny, given that one key element stands on shaky ground. The sale of surplus property to balance the budget is uncertain at best. This month the school board wisely rejected a low-ball offer of $247,500 for a .78-acre parcel appraised at $840,000. The district should not resort to fire sales to gain revenue to fix budget mistakes and rob taxpayers of an equitable return on their investments.

The administration's pledge to transparency also merits attention. As professed in Valley's commentary, "Our team has worked tirelessly to be transparent in every area of our business." School district staff should be accessible to the public and answer concerns and questions, and that includes media inquiries. Taxpayers should be fully informed of all developments in the school district, what with a $568 million budget that is now flawed.

To be fair, district administrators have reduced spending and intend to restore the fund balance required by the state. The anticipation of "making a financial turnaround of over $17 million in one year," as Valley stated, would be remarkable.

While this new shortfall is a setback, we hope that optimism holds true.

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