Manatee County school district budget proposal promising in wake of fiscal woes

June 27, 2014 

Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, right, and Heather Jenkins, director of budget, left, address the Manatee County School Board and district administrators as they present a draft of the 2014-2015 budget during a board meeting on June 24, 2014.PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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This week the Manatee County school board reviewed the initial draft of the district's 2014-2015 budget, and early indications are very positive.

In a discussion with this Editorial Board, school board chair Julie Aranibar outlined three points that should appeal to the public:

This budget is aligned to academics for the first time in recent memory; nothing on the education side was deleted; and spending cuts came out of operations.

This draft listed categories, and a line-item budget will be unveiled at the board's July 8 meeting.

The $367 million budget blueprint -- some $19 million higher than last year -- still leaves the district in a tight financial spot, as Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, noted at Tuesday's board meeting. "We are not out of the woods financially," he admitted.

That's to be expected for a district still dealing with one audit after another which exposed fiscal mismanagement and overspending for years that broke numerous regulations and requirements. Most recently, state and federal audits resulted in orders to the district to pay back $7 million in misspent funds.

Another potential scandal looms, possibly the worst. An internal audit discovered $6.4 million from a 2009 sales tax bond had been wrongfully spent or not even documented. Almost $3 million cannot be traced, and missing emails have stymied auditors. This has now become a legal investigation.

This could result in another financial setback.

But as the fiscal situation stands today, the district has achieved a strong turnaround during Superintendent Rick Mill's first full budget cycle. The budget draft shows the district meeting the state-mandated 3 percent minimum in reserves, a first for Manatee in years. That amounts to $11.5 million.

Had the district not been surprised by the $7 million penalty payback, this year's fund balance would have been strong, at a projected $8.2 million.

In a message addressed to the public, Aranibar stated: "This will be the first budget for Manatee County that is balanced, defined and aligned to the mission and vision of our district."

Residents will be able to judge that once the line-by-line budget is released. Aranibar made a pledge in that message: "... please know as we prepare and bring this information to the public, our goal is to have complete accountability and transparency."

We expect nothing less, especially after the previous administration's disastrous accounting and budgeting practices.

With a balanced budget and a healthy reserve, the district is making headway in rebuilding financial stability. While that's still a work in progress, the future looks brighter today than in recent history.

This comes amid other positive developments -- the increase in student achievement as shown in higher standardized test scores and end-of-course exams. That earned the district commendations from the Florida Department of Education, one of three in the state to be cited for strong advances.

The core missions of improving education standards and returning to fiscal responsibility are reasons for community celebration.

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