MANATEE -- After a year of financial hardship, the Manatee County School District now projects an $8 million general fund balance by the close of the fiscal year in June.
In June 2013, the school district closed the year with a negative fund balance and no money in reserves, missing the state-required 3 percent general-fund balance for the third year in a row.
Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said the district is now confident the June fiscal report will be different.
Hall hedged a bit Tuesday at the Manatee School Board meeting, saying there are assumptions and risks attached to the $8 million fund balance prediction.
The prediction is based on expenditures only as of December 2013, he said, and is also contingent on $2.5 million in property sales closing by June 30.
"There are still steps that need to be taken with this," Hall said.
The overall 2013-14 budget had to be adjusted three times since adoption in September because of unanticipated expenditures and costs.
"There will always be costs you don't know about and things that come along," Hall said.
The school district wants to sell a 10-acre outparcel of Braden River High School property and will discuss contract offers at its Feb. 11 meeting, including a $2.75 million offer from Blackrock Development Holdings of Bradenton. Hall said the property sale is not guaranteed.
Hall's presentation showed $353.4 million in revenue and $337.8 million in expenditures -- a $15 million difference.
Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer said district expenditures are down 3 percent since November.
The school district has now encumbered salaries and wages, which make up 90 percent of the budget when combined with utilities, he said.
"We are encumbering salaries so it will no longer be a guess," Hall said.
The projected fund balance does not include potential fees related to the Florida Auditor General report in December. With 33 operational deficit findings, the audit could stack up around $9 million in penalties.
School board officials said they hope for increased revenue from the Department of Education based on the next Florida Education Finance Program, a funding formula that takes local property tax bases and student population into account.
School board member Barbara Harvey said Hall's data was the clearest fiscal report the board has seen in a while from the district.
"After information like this is presented, we get phone calls, as we should. We should be held accountable," Harvey said. "As long as we know the data presented is accurate, we will not be shocked in June."
Superintendent Rick Mills said the district needs to cover all state audit findings.
"We are working to minimize penalties and see in what way we can get funding to our advantage if we do have to pay them," Mills said. "We will suggest a payment plan if they don't forgive the findings."
Mills said the district senior leadership staff will meet with Department of Education officials within 30 days to discuss potential penalty costs.
Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instructional services, said Manatee County exceptional student education classes had most of the state instructional findings. Greene said students were previously placed incorrectly into programs reserved for students with the most critical needs in learning disabilities.
"Those who should not have qualified, did," Greene said.
Greene said the errors could have been caused by something as simple as typos.
"Once a child is placed into an (individualized education plan,) we have 60 days to complete the documentation and assessments," Greene said. "The clock starts ticking, and the DOE sends out reports on how well we meet the timeline. It takes a lot of time and energy, but it needs to be done right."
To aid budget planning over the next five years, the school district conducted a countywide survey to learn community priorities.
Rodney Jones, who sits on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee and filed to run for the school board's District 2 seat, said the survey was more a snapshot than scientific.
"We didn't want to exhaust our resources on a highly technical survey," Jones said.
Survey priorities include high school graduation rates, updated technology, competitive teacher salaries and benefits and school security.
Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association and chairwoman of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, said it is the first time she remembers the district asking for community input in the budgeting process. She said she hopes this means good news for future funds management.
"Everyone from the community is watching now," Barber said. "You can do the same old thing where you thank the community for their input and then go on doing whatever you want, or this time it can be meaningful."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.