The 'tone at the top' of Manatee County school district continues to improve

November 16, 2013 

Staff Photographer

Manatee County School Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter smiles as she listens to public comments during Monday night's school board meeting. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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How the Manatee School District establishes a culture of true accountability, not repeating or hiding mistakes, is in part exemplified by the recent audit of our schools' internal accounts.

Byron Shinn, our new auditor, emphasized the importance of the "tone at the top" in the presentation of his firm's intensive and extensive audit. He gave credit to the principal who sets the standards for compliance, transparency and accountability: there were no audit findings for three "exemplar" schools, Ballard, Freedom and Harlee Middle!

So there were three of 55 cited as "exemplar" this year. Is that a good number? For those three, yes. Next year, I am certain that the number will be much higher, as clear expectations, training, support and strict consequences come into play, enabling staff to correct errors.

This first phase of audit accountability has clear direction; next, the auditors will review district practices and risks.

The tone set by the principals, by other administrators and the superintendent is important in reflecting the tone of the school board's key core values -- honesty, integrity, transparency, equity, learning and leadership, accountability.

Last spring, I received a very official-looking letter from the Joint Legislative Audit Oversight Committee "inviting" me as board chair to Tallahassee to discuss why, for three consecutive audit years, we were cited. Although I try to be patient, my patience and temper were in inverse proportion that day. Ignoring findings, not fixing errors, kicking problems and mistakes down the road for three years, did not and does not make a mistake or problem disappear. I am pleased that the new tone at the top saw that in six months, audit findings have been resolved.

In addition to hiring three new key staff, the superintendent, the attorney, and the auditor, to help the board change the culture and ensure accountability, we ask citizens to serve as "watchdogs" as members of the Audit and the Budget Committees.

On our website are three areas for citizen action:

• Report child abuse: call 800-96-ABUSE.

• Report fraud: 941-747-0496.

• A feedback section: tell us what you think.

These are all on the home page of the new website. Come to a meeting and speak up; in the past, sometimes this was the only way we have learned about a problem.

After all the meetings, audits, public hearings, workshops, when all is said and done, what counts is what we do next, with clear expectations and consequences.

We have the benefit of an administration who tells us, as was done in August and October, about additional non-budgeted expense needs, nearly all related to students and compliance with special needs. While the "brutal facts" are not pleasant, they are necessary so that we can improve.

Thanks to the day-to-day ministrations of bus drivers, teachers, aides, food service workers, custodians, community volunteers, and all the support staff, the children, all 46,000 of them, are doing fine. They are taking the ACT and SAT, getting industry certifications, going to school, excelling in sports, preparing college essays. They are being accountable because their futures depend on it. Adults can learn from the students.

Wednesday marks the eighth month for our "new" superintendent. I wish I could tell him it will get easier soon, but reversing the decline, as measured by our state ranking, and by all our audit findings, it will need even more effort. We have much work to do as we apply standards of integrity and competence to get this right.

Rebuilding takes time and effort. We did not slide from being ranked 30th in the state to a dismal 55th in just over 10 years without those problems. And it will take more than a year or two, perhaps as long as five, to effect a healthy and financially stable organization, with resources better directed to students.

As we laid the foundation over the past year (and my term as chair ends), it is relevant to review the meetings -- all of which had to be advertised, agendas prepared and recorded for compliance with Florida's Sunshine standards.

Three major policies were adopted, on nepotism, fraternization and local preference. There were 19 board workshops, five board trainings, 19 "regular" board meetings, 13 public hearings, three sets of interviews, and nine special meetings.

All reports cited a great need for change and improvement, especially financial and organizational, including the Forensic Audit Report, the Auditor General's Report, the Annual Audit, and the Transition Team Report of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Numerous community and business volunteers helped on the superintendent search process and give us the benefit of their ongoing advice.

Accountability takes work, and we are prepared to continue making this a better district: the future of 46,000 children depends on it. We continue to need, value and appreciate the community's help.

Karen Carpenter, is outgoing chair of the Manatee County School Board.

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