Manatee School Board struggles with financials, OKs new student program

eearl@bradenton.comJanuary 15, 2014 

MANATEE -- As the Manatee County School Board grappled with approving October 2013 financial statements and explain reasoning for dipping into internal school accounts at the regular board meeting Tuesday, members said they will have to take more financial caution in 2014.

Administration officials returned from meeting Monday with legislators in Tallahassee regarding their responses to December's Florida Auditor General Report.

School board chairwoman Julie Aranibar said state representatives were angry when they heard all 33 operational findings from the audit.

"They said they had not seen so many findings and issues before, but they also said we came prepared to correct the findings," Aranibar said.

The Manatee County School District faces nearly $10 million in fines if it cannot live up to action plans submitted to the state.

"If we do get fined, all our work we have done would be in vain," Aranibar said. "We would end up in same hole we desperately tried to climb out of."

Byron Shinn, school district internal auditor, said 2014 has already brought in hard work as the district tries to remedy operational deficiencies. Shinn said he will hold a workshop with the board

and the audit committee in February to cover software and management areas identified as problems in past audit reports.

"It will be back and forth and a very candid talk," Shinn said.

School board member Bob Gause expressed concern about getting more public funding.

"Sarasota receives 12 percent more funding than Manatee," Gause said. "At some point, we need to ask if the community wants the same opportunities for students. Are we willing to ask the community to step up to plate?"

Gause said Tuesday he suggests a possible millage increase discussion for a future workshop. He did not gain support from the board.

Aranibar said it is not an appropriate time to ask for money. "We do not have the trust of the community nor state Legislature," Aranibar said.

The district did decide to purchase Smart Horizons, one of two state-approved online high school programs, for up to $211,065 for up to 18 months.

Smart Horizons is a program for seniors who have not passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or the Algebra I final exam. These students have earned enough credits and the required grade point average, but cannot graduate because of failure to pass the standardized tests.

Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instructional services, said the Smart Horizons program is a last resort for students.

"It is an opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma from a nationally accredited high school that does not have the same graduation requirements as Florida," Greene said.

There were concerns over funding the Smart Horizons program, which Cynthia Saunders, executive director of middle schools, said would come from district funds.

"The school district is paying for it with money from district funding, the majority from individual high school's internal funds," Saunders said. Money for the Smart Horizons program is also coming from school improvement plan funds, instructional material funds and internal account funds.

The next school board meeting is 5:45 p.m. Jan. 28.

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

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