Year in review: A trying 2013 for Manatee school district

eearl@bradenton.comDecember 30, 2013 

MANATEE -- This year has been one of change for the Manatee County School District, ranging from a new superintendent, shifts in top administration, criminal investigations and a bulging budget deficit.

Here are the top stories from 2013:

Fighting the deficit

Former Superintendent of Schools Tim McGonegal resigned when a $3.4 million deficit was revealed in the Feb. 12 budget.

This year, the extent of that deficit has continued to expand.

The district released a 16,000-page forensic audit report Feb. 1 containing interviews with district employees and an investigation into the district's financial department. The report confirmed the district had not budgeted for a significant number of existing programs and teachers who had been hired. Administrators were using an "archaic" budgeting software that failed to

do simple functions such as add and subtract. The payroll software Position Control had also been shut off.

In May, under new administration, the district made the decision to dip into internal school accounts. Money from after-school programs, yearbook sales and vending machines was "borrowed" to help the district meet the state-required 3 percent fund balance -- about $10 million -- by July 2014.

In December, the Auditor General released a two-part report, unveiling a potential cost of $9 million to the district. The 33 findings of operational failures included $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 district sent its responses to the state Dec. 21, which included a rebuttal to the $4.1 million in sales tax, most of which was used to lease copiers. Corrective action mentioned in the written statement included "reviewing documentation and the budget" to determine whether the charges made were appropriate use.

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

The district also will need to answer the second part of the state 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 these state findings.

New leadership

After McGonegal hurried out in September, the school board voted to make then-assistant superintendent of schools Bob Gagnon interim superintendent. The school board soon after chose Dave Gayler to serve as interim superintendent.

Rick Mills was sworn in March 20 as the new superintendent. After a national search, the school board elected Mills in a 4-1 vote.

Mills started changing top administration immediately, calling for the elimination of assistant superintendent positions in April in favor of deputy superintendents.

The deleted positions had been held by Gagnon and former attorney Scott Martin. Mills' reorganization plan, unveiled in June, also included an executive director of human resources, a director of communications and family and community engagement, a budget director and a finance director. Seven new top administration positions were created.

In April, the school board approved Don Hall as deputy superintendent of operations and Diana Greene as the deputy superintendent of instruction.

Hall had previously worked in Minneapolis with Mills, and Greene had been a candidate for superintendent.

Each has an annual salary of $132,503.

In July, Mary Murray of Collier County started as the new director of high schools, and Cynthia Saunders of Marion County started as the new executive director of middle schools. Each will earn an annual salary of about $115,000.

The district also brought in Troy Pumphrey as the new investigator for its office of professional standards.

Frazier probe

The investigation of former Manatee High assistant football coach Rod Frazier has been unfolding all year long and is not over.

Frazier is charged with 10 misdemeanors: seven counts of battery against students, faculty or staff and three counts of interfering with school attendance.

Frazier was placed on paid administrative leave in February and resigned in July.

Four school district officials, including Gagnon, former assistant principals Matthew Kane and Gregg Faller and former district investigator Debra Horne, face felony charges they did not report suspicions of child abuse to the state abuse hotline.

In October, the school board voted to suspend Gagnon, Faller and Kane without pay. Also in October, Horne retired and Scott Martin, former school district staff attorney, resigned effective Nov. 2.

In November, Manatee County Judge Doug Henderson granted Frazier eight separate trials, ruling prosecutors had improperly linked the battery charges. The pretrial date for Frazier is set for Thursday.

Horne was also granted a separate trial.

Gagnon's hearing is set for 9 a.m. Jan. 13.

Kane's hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 14

Manatee High baseball probe

Manatee County School District officials recommended Manatee High School athletic director and football coach Joe Kinnan be suspended 10 days without pay and stripped of his responsibilities overseeing Athletic Department finances after an investigation of former baseball coach Dwayne Strong found Kinnan "failed to maintain honesty in his professional dealings."

The recommendations are based on a 264-page investigation released Dec. 16.

School district investigator Pumphrey began investigating Strong after he received an anonymous letter accusing him of using his position as baseball coach to benefit a business venture, 5 Tools Baseball Instruction, and improper oversight of the baseball team's finances.

The district alleges Gagnon and Kinnan worked to steer internal funds toward financing The Sandlot @5-Tools.

Kinnan was issued a letter of reprimand Dec. 6 -- the same day he resigned as athletic director effective at the end of the year but would remain as head football coach.

Mills is recommending assistant Gagnon be suspended 10 days for not fully cooperating in the Strong investigation -- if the Manatee County School Board doesn't uphold a recommendation he be fired in the Frazier investigation.

Kinnan has until Jan. 7 to request a hearing, and Gagnon has formally requested a hearing.

School grades

While Manatee County School District high schools showed improvement in grades from 2012-13, elementary and middle school grades are still suffering.

Manatee County has 17 F and D schools, even with the new safety net rule that only allows schools to drop one letter grade in a year.

The eight schools with failing grades this year are Manatee, Orange Ridge-Bullock, Palm View, Daughtrey and Samoset elementary schools, Lincoln and Harllee middle schools and Manatee Charter School.

Manatee County had 20 A and B schools and 12 C schools. The number of A schools fell 44 percent from last year.

Manatee County also had five schools on the state's 100 worst elementary schools for reading results -- Samoset, Daughtrey, Oneco, Palmetto and Orange Ridge-Bullock elementary schools.

Those schools had an additional hour of reading instruction pinned to the end of the school day this year. Only students who scored a 5 on the FCAT reading were released at the usual time.

The additional hour of reading class will continue through the 2013-14 school year.

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