Manatee School Board grapples with 'vague' auditor general responses and action plan

eearl@bradenton.comDecember 18, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board met Wednesday to discuss the district action plan in response to 33 findings in a Florida Auditor General Office's report.

Not all board members were pleased with the Manatee County School District responses and lack of a full action plan available to the public.

The district is required to answer to the state operational improvements requirements from the first half of an audit released Dec. 3.

The report contained a total potential financial impact of $9 million for the district, including:

• $4.1 million in questionable sales tax spending;

• $1.4 million in questionable ad valorem tax revenue spending; and

• $1 million in questionable spending from construction bonds, state board of education bonds and other funds earmarked for capital projects.

The school district also failed to return more than $728,000 to the state as required, according to the audit. The school district also reportedly misspent money from the workers' compensation fund, leaving it with a $1.7 million deficit, according to the audit.

The school district has until Friday to submit its response.

Deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall said he wants all responses -- operational, financial and federal -- done together. Initial responses are due Friday, and the school district has until before the release of the comprehensive annual financial report Jan. 16 to completely resolve their responses to the auditor general, whether by eliminating a finding through rebuttal, agreeing with and mitigating a finding or working out a payment plan.

The school district responses to the auditor general are separate from the action plan due Jan. 17 to the Florida Department of Education.

The action plan posted to the district website is 80 percent complete, said Superintendent Rick Mills. Of 21 findings addressed, 15 involve issues that also appeared in the Mauldin & Jenkins audit recommendations in March.

School board members debated if district responses and its partial action plan to date are adequate. District responses to the auditor general's findings include:

• Initiating payroll and

human resources software Position Control and continues to work with provider JD Edwards;

• modified procedures and enhanced controls over miscellaneous cash collections;

• reviewed and improved controls to ensure expenditures are only incurred for authorized purposes.

The school district questioned the $4.1 million state cost estimate calling it an "appropriate use of sales tax proceeds." Questioned costs include nearly $1 million for leasing copiers.

"The District will properly account for the Capital Lease and corresponding fixed assets for year-end June 30, 2014," according to the posted response.

The district letter with responses to the auditor general report will be online Friday when it is submitted.

The partial action plan posted Wednesday morning is insufficient, some school board members said.

"This is not visible to me," school board Vice Chairman Dave "Watchdog" Miner said.

But Hall said the responses to the findings are sufficient for now.

"We didn't give away the farm, but there are concrete steps that will more than address that finding," Hall said.

Hall said responses are not the same as the action plan, and that the district could have simply responded "addressed, being addressed or not addressed."

State statutes suggest otherwise. The statute for a response to the auditor general, found in section 11.45 (4)(d), states a written statement of explanation or rebuttal, including corrective action, is required.

Hall also reminded board members of the response time stamp.

"If we find anything we need to research, we have two days to do that until we are on two-week break," he said.

Miner said if response changes are needed between now and Jan. 17, the school board will need to see the proposals in order to make suggestions.

"That is not being provided to us," Miner said. "I find this inadequate. We need to do more than shuffling papers up to the auditor general. We need to provide answers to the community, and we are not doing that. This is vague."

School board member Bob Gause called finding 16, which states selection of professional services could be enhanced, "the most damning in the audit" because it falls in the lap of the school board.

"The board did not use complete selection processes in choosing a board attorney and the internal auditor," Hall said. "We are responding that those are specifically identified as services that do not require any special bid or contract process."

Gause, who repeatedly said district responses lacked timeline details, said the board "threw out all safeguards."

"The fact that we could legally do it does not mean we should have," Gause said.

School board member Karen Carpenter said her greatest concern was employee access to records, including human resources, payroll and information technology.

"These are all activities that can compromise the integrity of the system," Carpenter said. "It is risk with unnecessary privileges."

Hall said Manatee Business World will now monitor user access more than once a year. He said the district is still working with internal auditor Shinn and Co. on an information systems audit. However, neither of these is mentioned in the written response.

Audit Committee Chairman Joseph Blitzko said he has genuine concern when auditors determine a district needs better controls.

"It is up to us to take the next step and say 'Here's what we're doing,'" Blitzko said. "That is what I think the staff is doing with action plan."

The district will also need to answer a second audit released Dec. 12, which found administrators did not adequately document charges to the special education program for early intervention programs, resulting in $1.5 million in questioned costs. The district has until Jan. 9 to respond to the latest audit.

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

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