MANATEE -- Manatee County School District Superintendent Rick Mills asked parents, teachers and School Advisory Council members to be upfront at the community engagement forum Wednesday night.
They responded accordingly.
As Mills announced the district is rewriting its strategic plan -- based on a combination of results from a series of public surveys in November and a two-day strategic planning retreat in December -- questions and comments came pouring in.
A group of about 20 stakeholders wanted to know how school funding is being used, particularly for school safety and technology.
Bridget Mendel, School Advisory Council chairwoman at Haile Middle School, expressed concern over sharing school resource officers, which leaves many Manatee County schools without resource officers for days at a time.
"We've lost (school resource officers) and parent liaisons," Mendel said. "We live in a community where people have easy, open access to weapons. With alternative funding sources, where are we moving forward with this? We are missing adult bodies at the schools."
Sally Hull, Manatee County School District environmental health and safety coordinator, said Haile is not the only school feeling the loss of manpower.
"We are pressuring the state to fund more SROs," Hull said. "This is just the beginning for us."
Mills said establishing consistent school staffing is one of the district's greatest challenges.
"When all is said and done, human capital generally represents about 80 percent of a school district's budget," Mills said. "This leaves only a small percentage for discretionary spending, which presents a real challenge."
Caryn Patterson, School Advisory Council chairwoman at Wakeland Elementary, asked about a school taking Parent Teacher Organization funds, if money is available, to spend on technology.
One member of the audience said she was recently updated at her school from a 10-year-old computer to a 5-year-old computer.
Mills admitted he didn't know the specific statutes and laws, but there are some ways in which PTO funds are restricted. For example, a school cannot use those funds to buy teaching positions for regular school hours.
"We would be leveraging a tremendous resource if we could," Mills said. "But in the past, we have done things that we thought were OK that weren't."
Mike Borysiewicz, new chief information and technology officer for Manatee County School District, agreed it is time to improve district technology.
"We have museum-quality information systems," Borysiewicz said. "From a technology perspective, it is throwing us back into the Dark Ages. We can't install the most recent versions of software if the hardware is antiquated. We truly have to look at this as a half-billion-dollar business."
Borysiewicz said ideally, the school district would refresh the computers in schools every three years, but the district does not have the money.
He said the plan now is to lay the foundation to have enough bandwidth so Manatee County schools can be Bring Your Own Device schools.
"We had a culture in the past of saying 'yes' to everything, which is why we overspent," Mills said.
Comments from parents, teachers and School Advisory Council chairs turned to the issue of last year's staffing cuts.
"If we want something but have to lose something else to stay balanced, are there checks and balances to ensure we won't go through the teacher cuts we went through last year?" Patterson asked.
Mills said staffing cuts were necessary.
"We had to do what we did to save the district financially," Mills said.
School board chairwoman Julie Aranibar said the budget downfalls and audit findings of prior years is not a reflection of how the board is operating now.
She called the Florida Auditor General Report findings, released in December, a "day of reckoning" for the school board.
"Trust has to be earned back, and we are fully aware of that," Aranibar said. "2014 will be a year of reconciliation for accounts, policies an procedures. As we move forward, it is a year of compliance."
Mills said a new strategic plan is still being drafted. The district aims to have the new plan approved by the school board by early May.
The new strategic plan will drive the district budget over the next five years.
"We need to get out of the business of the 'idea of the month' and evaluate for how dollars are used and growth and outcome," Mills said.
Mills said budget projections show an $8 million surplus in the general fund balance by the close of the fiscal year June 30.
While Mendel said the school district has entered a "new era of trust," it should still consider alternative funding sources for teachers and programs. If state lawmakers say Manatee County schools are on the road to recovery, she is struggling to understand why the district is lacking in IT.
"I would like to see HR present at the next meeting," Mendel said.
The next community engagement forum meeting date is yet to be decided.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.