A plea to Florida education commissioner: let Manatee County school district forge ahead

May 2, 2014 

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Manatee County School Disitrct Superintendent Rick Mills talks during the Soup with the Supe event in March 2014 at the Bradenton Yacht Club in Palmetto.FILE PHOTO/GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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Any day now the Manatee County School District should learn its fate regarding possible state punishment for overspending its budget the past two years by $13 million.

District leaders fear the Florida Department of Education could hammer the financially struggling school system with up to $10 million in fines and penalties. The state could seize control of the district, too.

That would be a terrible setback that would punish the district for the misdeeds and mismanagement under the previous administration. The rampant, uncontrolled spending actually dates back to 2009, and the total shortfall amounts to $38 million over the ensuing four years.

The district projects a budget surplus of around $8.2 million at the end of this fiscal year, a remarkable turnaround that would replenish the reserve account but still fall short of the state's 3 percent fund balance mandate. How the district went the last three years ignoring the law continues to shock.

Excessive fines and penalties could wipe that out and continue the district's struggles.

We implore DOE Commissioner Pam Stewart to opt for leniency and allow the district to continue its financial recovery.

And we echo the district's entreaties to Manatee County legislators, specifically Sen. Bill Galvano and Reps. Jim Boyd and Greg Steube, to lobby the state

As this community well knows, in 2012 the district discovered a $3.4 million deficit that occurred under the sloppy oversight of then Superintendent Tim McGonegal, who quickly resigned upon the disclosure.

Superintendent Rick Mills has only been on the job a little over a year, and his new leadership team less than that. They should not be held accountable for past out-of-control spending.

In the Florida Auditor General's investigation last year into district finances, 33 findings detailed questionable spending on a host of matters. The district responded with explanations, rebuttals and a corrective action plan.

Then in January the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee called district officials to Tallahassee. While lawmakers called the audit "radioactive" and expressed embarrassment for Florida over the outrageous conduct causing the overspending, they also praised Mills for his leadership and thorough response to the audit.

Commissioner Stewart, we ask that you take into account that lawmaker support for Mills as well as his detailed strategies for not only establishing sound business practices but improving the academic success of students.

Allow this community and district to move forward under our own power.

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