Manatee School Board chairwoman joins Mills in calling for state investigation

Aranibar joins Mills in asking for investigation of past administration's financial practices

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 8, 2014 

MANATEE -- A day after Superintendent Rick Mills sent the state a letter requesting an investigation of the financial practices of past administration, school board chairwoman Julie Aranibar reiterated the request as a means of avoiding or reducing fines.

"We have at this time received a forensic report from Navigant which concluded no criminal activity for financial accounts," Aranibar writes. "This does not address the issue of malfeasance or misfeasance of financial matters of the School District of Manatee County."

The letter continues:

"We are facing millions of needed educational dollars for potential fines and we have no fiscal means of paying for additional investigations or litigation of something of this scope. It is my understanding that there is

no other district in the state which has been in this situation and we should ensure accountability for those responsible for the misappropriation of funds."

Aranibar hopes that if the state can determine malfeasance, the district will not be responsible for the state fines.

If malfeasance is found, the district may have the option of filing charges or bringing a civil suit.

In his letter, Mills cites the Auditor General's report from the 2012-13 fiscal year that ended June 30. The report showed 33 findings in the operational audit and nine findings in the financial and federal audit. The findings amount to $10 million in questioned costs.

Mills took his post as superintendent, replacing former superintendent Tim McGonegal, in March 2013.

The district is looking to place the blame for financial troubles, including "millions" in potential fines and a deficit totaling $13 million between the 2011-12 school years and the 2012-13 school years, on past administration.

McGonegal took the blame for the distrct's financial morass when he submitted his resignation September 10, 2012. In his resignation, he wrote:

"A leader takes responsibility for the results of their organization. The financial results of 2011-2012 are unacceptable. I have held administrators in Manatee County to a very high standard and I will hold myself to this standard."

According to Mills' letter, the district overspent by a total of $38 million over the last five years.

Inspector General Mike Blackburn was out of the office Friday in a training session, said Tiffany Cowie, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education. The director of investigations was out of the office as well.

"When we get back to the office Monday morning we will review the letter and determine our next steps," Blackburn said Friday in an email. "Ultimately it is up to the Commissioner (of Education) to determine if an investigation will be conducted."

If the state decides to open the investigation for malfeasance between 2010-12, then the Inspector General will complete the investigation and publish the findings.

What happens once the results are published will be up to the Manatee County School district, according to Cowie, who said the state does not decide penalties.

"That falls on them," Cowie said.

The School District of Manatee County would have to look at its options. Aranibar said Thursday. The district can press charges, although she admits the forensic audit did not find any criminal use of finances. The school district would also have the option of filing a civil suit.

Blackburn said the state neither assesses nor determines penalties resulting from the potential findings.

"We do not determine what the penalties will be or assess those penalties," Blackburn said. "That is a function of management and would be the responsibility of the district."

Blackburn declined to discuss what will happen if evidence of malfeasance is found,

"I cannot answer the other questions at this point other than to say that we only report the facts and whether those facts support the allegations," Blackburn said.

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

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