Manatee School Board discusses improving budget forecast

mdelaney@bradenton.comJune 25, 2014 

BRADENTON -- The first draft of the Manatee County School District budget projects a significant turnaround from last year's fiscal standpoint but is not a silver bullet for revenue problems, according to district officials who presented it Tuesday night to the Manatee County School Board.

The draft of the $367 million budget reflects a $19-million increase over last year's budget and hits the state-mandated 3 percent minimum in district reserves by the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year at $11.5 million.

But it is not exactly where district officials would like to be.

"We are not out of the woods financially," said Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations. "This is a tight budget. It's not full of extras. It's not full of fluff."

Creating the budget this year has been hampered by state and federal audit findings requiring the district to pay back about $7 million misused in the past. Prior to the audit setback, the district projected an $8.2 million fund balance by fiscal year-end June 30.

Instead, the fund balance is now projected at nearly $2.5 million by the end of the year, significantly below the estimated state-required minimum. The improving balance hinges in part on projected utility savings from cooler weather this year.

The draft is subject to change over the coming months as district officials receive more input from the board.

Board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner said the district should increase the percentage in reserves. Miner said he'd like to see 6 percent to 8 percent in reserves.

A line-by-line budget will be presented to the school board July 8.

The board is expected to approve the final budget in September, although some materials and expenses will be incurred during summer. For example, the board approved spending $500,000 on testing items Tuesday using money from the 2014-15 budget.

"That's just typical," Hall said

Miner also brought up an issue from the June 10 meeting regarding spending $365,000 on a two-year contract with Atlantic Research Partners to train principals. Miner wanted to hold off on approving minutes from that meeting because attachments were incorrect, but they have since been fixed and a sentence was added to the minutes to reflect the original incorrect attachment.

Miner also expressed displeasure with the number of consent agenda items, which are passed without discussion.

"There are 62 items on the consent agenda," Miner said. "We're talking about a motion and a second to approve (spending) maybe $30 million of public money."

Miner was successful in taking a half-dozen items off the consent agenda to be discussed individually.

"The reason that these are on here is that they are important," Miner said. "That's why I am asking that these be put under new business and we maybe have a brief explanation."

Board member Julie Aranibar and Superintendent Rick Mills said consent agenda items are posted a week in advance, which is ample time for board members to have questions answered prior to the meeting. Mills said asking questions in advance makes it easier to find answers before the meeting.

"To come in here and sort these questions and to not have the correct people in here is unfair to the public," Mills said.

All items Miner had taken off the consent agenda and filed under new business, which included spending $500,000 on testing materials and approving new job descriptions for the dean of high schools and student support specialists, were ultimately approved by the board.

In other business Tuesday, the board approved:

• Accepting the Manatee County Public Schools strategic plan called "Foundations For Excellence" for 2015-19, which is designed to guide the district for five years. The strategic plan was delayed at the last meeting by the board so more information could be filed into the document.

• Selling land to Blackrock Development Holdings Inc. for $750,000. Blackrock wants to buy 2.75 acres at Braden River High School, an area between the intersection of State Route 70 and 66th Street East, and 1.7 acres at 816 Leffingwell Ave. in Ellenton. The deal is expected to close before Aug. 29. Board member Robert Gause abstained from the vote.

• Paying $310,000 for a three-year contract with two different companies to provide a virtual school program. The contract is with Edgenuity, based in Arizona, and K12 Florida LLC, based in Virginia.

• Spending almost $3 million to buy more than 6,000 new laptops. Each Lenovo laptop will cost about $425 and purchased from a supplier in Illinois.

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

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