Manatee school board submits response letter to Auditor General

eearl@bradenton.comDecember 21, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District submitted its responses Friday to the state answering the findings in the Auditor General's report in an effort to ameliorate fines the district is facing.

The district had until Friday to submit its response letter and did so right on deadline. The district released the letter on its website around 4:40 p.m. Friday.

The audit's 33 findings included:

• $4.1 million in questionable sales tax spending

• $1.4 million in questionable ad valorem tax revenue spending

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

• $728,000 that was not returned to the state as required.

Before leaving for the day and shortly after releasing the letter, Steve Valley, spokesperson for the Manatee County School District, said the district has gone "above and beyond" in its letter and plan for recovery to the auditor general and is submitting more than the state requires.

"We have gone to the next level to provide our action plan," Valley said.

According to state statute, a response to the auditor general regarding serious

findings requires a written statement of explanation or rebuttal, including corrective action.

Valley said the Auditor General will not respond directly to the district's letter. The district will go over its plan with the Florida Department of Education in January.

"The Auditor General will be back in three years for the next scheduled audit," Valley said.

Also next month, the Manatee County School district's internal auditor Shinn and Co will examine its own audit to see how the district is doing on keeping up with the submitted responses.

The district disagreed with one of the Auditor General's biggest findings: $4.1 million in questioned spending using sales tax revenues. One of the biggest expenses noted was for leasing copiers, which the district argues was a legitimate expense.

School board chairwoman Julie Aranibar said more than $1 million could very well have gone to the copiers, a necessary expense for the school district.

"If you think about it, we have 53 buildings and 44,000 students," Aranibar said.

The district states in the letter to the state that the sales tax resolution includes technology hardware and software as eligible expenditures.

"The district will properly account for the capital lease and corresponding fixed assets for year-end June 30, 2014," the report reads.

The district also had a response for the $1.4 million in questioned ad valorem tax spending. They will "review documentation and the budget" to determine whether the charges made were appropriate use.

The $728,815 the district retained from the public education capital outlay appropriation was supposed to go back to the state. According to the report, the district will work with the Florida Department of Education to determine if projects paid by other funds are eligible for the public education capital outlay funds, and if the expenditures can be transferred to those projects instead of reverting to the state.

If not, district officials said they will develop a payment plan with the department of education.

The district will also use its capital projects committee, which was formed Oct. 16, to form a long-range facilities planning committee. According to the letter, this committee will help identify long-range capital needs.

Comments about the response to the audit were deferred to Valley. After releasing the information, Valley left for the day.

"I want to clarify that there is a process that we go through," Aranibar said. "The board's concern in the past was that this response went out and then no action was taken. Nothing was done in the past, and we don't want to do that again."

Aranibar said the board itself does not monitor the activity of departments in the district.

"That's the superintendent's job. How do we know that everything is going as it should? That is the audit function," Aranibar said. "The audit committee is not just accountants that check numbers, they also check processes and procedures and check for fraud."

Aranibar said there was not a mechanism in place for reporting whether money was being appropriated improperly, and instead, board members reported concerns to the superintendent.

That method proved to be ineffective when the school board faced its deficit last fiscal year. Aranibar said in future audits, she hopes a process is in place to find whatever needs to be corrected sooner.

"The rules we violated are not put in place to punish us, but to ensure the funds that came to us were used for their intended purpose and to ensure that the reserve balances for emergencies were there," Aranibar said. "They did not put rules there for us to jump over hurdles. They're there for a good reason, and we ignored that and went right on into a deficit situation."

The board will meet again Jan. 7 to discuss the district's action plan, which will be negotiated with the Florida Department of Education.

The district also will 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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