Outdated Manatee schools email technology hampers bond investigation

mdelaney@bradenton.comJune 24, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Emails documenting how Manatee County School District officials spent sales tax bond money in 2009 have disappeared, prompting the Manatee County School Board to bring in attorneys to help auditors investigate the misspent money.

Internal auditors are trying to figure out how approximately $8 million of a $45 million sales tax bond was spent without proper documentation or authorization.

So far, auditors have accounted for approximately $5 million, leaving about $3 million improperly documented, according to Byron Shinn, the internal auditor working with the district.

After a draft report was presented to the board in May, internal auditors requested more documents and hit a roadblock with district emails.

"As we're going in and looking at these pieces we've stumbled into several items. One is just backups on emails, having a backup in place," Shinn told the board during a special workshop Monday on the bond and district debt.

A server crash wiped out a lot of emails auditors said they needed to help determine who authorized spending bond money. Another hindrance is turnover because key employees who should have answers no longer work for the district.

The district retrieved 57 megabytes of the missing emails from district archives and are analyzing them. Auditors are also analyzing records from the bond counsel and bond trustee to piece everything together.

Shinn, working with Oscher Consulting in Tampa, said he expects to have more answers for the board in two to three weeks.

Representatives from Shinn and Oscher are now working with the board's legal counsel. Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said it's normal to pull legal help into a project such as this, which he said would be fair to call an "investigation."

In 2009, three projects were approved through bond funding: a Palmetto High School addition, work at Rogers Garden Elementary School and modernizing the transportation and maintenance facility at the Matzke complex.

About $45.2 million was available for the three projects, according to the re

port.

Receipts for those projects added up to $38.8 million, leaving $6.4 million unspent, according to the internal audit draft issued in May.

Oscher reported money also went to projects at the Manatee Technical Institute campus on Caruso Road and to Myakka Elementary School. It also went to pay district debt while Tim McGonegal was district superintendent.

Board members expressed concern about having proper protocols in place to prevent this type of situation in the future. Shinn said he'd be able to share best practices and lessons learned once the investigation is complete.

"Every question that we try to answer has led to a couple more questions and then a couple more questions," Shinn said.

In addition to reviewing the bond, the board also looked at outstanding district debt, which accounts for about 47 percent of the money in the district fund for capital projects.

The district's total outstanding debt for 2014-15 is $36 million. The district expects to receive about $76 million for capital projects for the 2014-15 school year, according to numbers presented Monday.

"We have a lot of debt in that fund," Hall said.

Hall was joined by Conley Weiss, most recently the chief financial officer for the St. Johns County School District. Weiss will serve as interim CFO until the Manatee County School District can replace CFO Michael Boyer, who left the district Friday.

The high debt ratio coupled with a lack of savings make the district a poor loan candidate in the future.

"That has ultimately lowered our bond rating," Hall said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.

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