Florida probe of Manatee County school district warranted

March 14, 2014 

Schools Summit

Pam Stewart, Florida education commissioner, talks at the Education Accountability Summit, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 at the St. Petersburg College Collaborative Labs, Clearwater.

SCOTT KEELER — AP

Florida Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart should grant the Manatee County school district's request for a thorough investigation into past financial mismanagement -- not just of the administration but the school board, too.

This community needs closure after several audits determined overspending and budgeting gimmicks on a monumental scale.

The board's unanimous decision this week to request the state Inspector General include the panel in a probe addresses citizen concerns about the complicity of elected officials in the fiscal disaster.

That vote follows letters by Superintendent Rick Mills and school board Chair Julie Aranibar requesting a state investigation.

Taxpayers deserve to know the extent of the oversight failures. The key questions are did board members unwittingly approve deceitful expenditures and budgets, manipulated and misled by Superintendent Tim McGonegal's administration? Or did malfeasance and misfeasance occur?

This is not about a blame game, this is about accountability. The school district violated numerous accounting and budgeting rules for years, overspending by some $38 million over five years and $8.5 million in 2012-2013.

Manatee County's school system has established a benchmark low in Florida for bookkeeping, violating rules and shifting money around to cover up shortfalls here and there. That can't be sugar-coated. Florida's Auditor General listed 42 findings of operational and federal financial deficits up until the end of June 2013.

While a forensic audit determined that no criminal activity occurred, that did not address who is ultimately responsible for misappropriation of funds and oversight failures, though clearly McGonegal and former district finance director Jim Drake are taking the brunt of the blame. In his September 2012 resignation, McGonegal accepted that responsibility.

Now, though, the school district faces millions in potential fines and hopes to escape or lower penalties via a state investigation that could also result in charges or a civil lawsuit.

The state would not assess nor determine legal actions arising out of an DOE investigation, should one occur. The Manatee County school district would be left with that decision.

Under Mills, only in office a year after his hiring in March 2013, the district has made great strides in the recovery process -- even winning the support of some of the school board's past sharpest critics. That growing public trust is essential in order to move forward with the primary task of improving its standing on education.

We implore Commissioner Stewart to approve the school board and district request. Give this community answers to disturbing questions.

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