Manatee school board members ask state to investigate them

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 12, 2014 

The Manatee County School Board: Linda Carpenter, left, Bob Gause, Julie Aranibar, Dave "Watchdog" Miner and Barbara Harvey. Manatee County School District photo.

MANATEE -- Manatee County School Board members unanimously voted Tuesday to request the Inspector General investigate possible malfeasance by the prior administration and board members who served during the period between 2010-12.

Four of five current board members -- Karen Carpenter, Bob Gause, Barbara Harvey and Chairwoman Julie Aranibar -- were on the school board during this time when Tim McGonegal was superintendent.

The school board members voted 4-0 for Superintendent Rick Mills to ask the Inspector General to investigate board members as well as past administrators. Aranibar was not present at the board meeting.

The request, made initially by Gause, follows a letter Mills sent Thursday to the Inspector General.

Gause said he wants a "broader review." Gause said potential penalties would vary depending on the severity of any misconduct found.

"The period in question initially was 2010-12, which includes four existing board members," Gause said. "If it goes beyond into 2013, it would include all current board members."

Gause said he is not bothered by being included in the group.

"As board members, we must be willing to allow this investigation," Gause said. "If we are going to go down this road, it is important to also have the Inspector General investigate and conclude if there was any board member misconduct. The request was made to expand the In

spector General's scope to include any misbehavior by any board member. The request is intended to quell rumors by encouraging a fact-based investigation rather than continued innuendo."

Carpenter agreed with Gause.

"Mr. Gause has a really good point," Carpenter said. "Maybe there is an opportunity to solicit questions and get the questions on the table we want answered. The forensic audit was too pinpoint and too narrow in its questions that were asked on the record and did not ask enough questions to get the complete and final answers. It had a very broad base and should not just include liability and responsibility of staff, but also board members."

Mills said he would include a probe into the past school board in his request to the Inspector General. Mills said he plans to speak with Florida Department of Education Inspector General Mike Blackburn at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"During the last year, I have routinely been approached by teachers, other district employees, parents and community members wanting to know who is ultimately accountable for the financial mismanagement of the school district," Mills said Tuesday. "As I stated in my letter to the Inspector General, this is a reasonable question."

Mills said he did not see a problem in broadening the scope of the probe to include board members.

"There may be times of passionate discussion and even disagreement, but this is not a symptom of dysfunction. It is a sign of productive conflict," Mills said.

Audit Committee Chairman Joseph Blitzko called for more analysis from school district management in issuing financial statements.

"The current management discussion and analysis is not meeting requirements," Blitzko said.

Calls to former Manatee County School Board Chairman Harry Kinnan were not immediately returned.

In other action, the board made preliminary plans for the 2014-15 budget.

The current recommended Florida education budget from Gov. Rick Scott is $320 million, a 3.75 percent increase from last year.

School districts, including Manatee County, anticipate a greater base allocation per student from the state.

Heather Jenkins, district budget director, said by the end of March the district plans to enter proposed budget allocations into the software program Position Control, which the board has termed "antiquated." District officials, however, have blamed many financial problems on the period of time the program was shut off in 2012.

A line-item budget is expected to be completed by May 23, with Mills sending the tentative budget to the board for approval July 22. The district aims to adopt a final budget for fiscal year 2014-15 by Sept. 9.

"This is a soft timeline," Jenkins said. "The timeline of the budget could change depending on when we receive information."

Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer said the district is still projecting a general fund balance of $8.1 million by June 30.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. April 8, with a special board workshop at 3 p.m.

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

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