Good scores, good budget news for Manatee County school district

June 13, 2014 

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Manatee County School Board member Julie Aranibar and Manatee School District Superintendent Rick Mills, listen as a member of the public speaks during public comments at a school board meeting in late May. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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With the end of the school year this week, Manatee County students and teachers -- and district administrators and the school board -- can celebrate another academic achievement.

Just like several weeks ago when initial FCAT 2.0 standardized tests results were released, the latest marks again show Manatee students are out performing state averages on many levels.

While overall state scores only rose by one or two percenterage points in most grades, Manatee County students rocked -- with a seven percentage point gain in grades three to five math and a five percentage jump in fifth-grade science.

Most impressive is the fact that on math scores, fourth, fifth and seventh grades surpassed the state average for the first time since 2008. Fourth-graders alone surged with 65 percent passing the test compared with 55 percent past year, now two percentage points above the state average.

That's quite an increase in one year.

Once again, just like a few weeks ago, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart singled out Manatee County as one of the shining stars for improved student performance.

In a year of budget nightmares, personnel investigations and other turmoil, improvement in student achievement could not come at a better time. This is, after all, the prime mission of public education.

Brighter budget outlook

But there's more good news -- just as important if not more so. On Tuesday, Superintendent Rick Mills announced the 2014-2015 budget could realize a projected $11.5 million fund balance, though details are still forthcoming.

That would be an amazing turnaround from recent deficits and thin reserves. This fiscal year, the district absorbed a $7 million hit on the budget in state and federal reimbursement requirements for misspent allocations, slashing reserves to less than a $1 million -- far below state law and in which Manatee failed to meet the minimum five years in a row.

Plus, an new audit found inappropriate spending on a 2009 bond issue with $6.4 million out of the $45.2 million either improperly spent on projects not cited in the bond issue or not documented.

This week internal auditors told district administrators that various fiscal action plans need more work. Auditors only approved three of the 15 plans they reviewed, but the district says 13 of the total of 42 action plans are complete.

Still, while the district continues to deal with financial issues, the forecast for an $11.5 million fund balance in the 2014-2015 budget is a very encouraging sign.

Meanwhile, we can salute the school district's academic success in many areas. But challenges remain. Student scores lag behind state averages in sixth-grade math and all reading categories, and other marks dropped or stayed flat.

Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Diana Greene stated in the earlier release of FCAT scores that the normal growth rate is only one or two percentage points a year. Manatee students surpassed that on many tests.

Next year, a new test -- the yet to be written Florida Standards -- will replace FCAT, That will make year-to-year comparisons impossible. Still, the scores show Manatee County's increase on many tests is a remarkable trend.

With the positive news on grades and the budget projection, the district is showing good progress. The community should be pleased.

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