Crammed Manatee County school consent agenda puts extra work on board, public, leads to mistake

mdelaney@bradenton.comJune 29, 2014 

BRADENTON -- In one fell swoop, the Manatee County school board authorized expending more than $21 million in public money when board members approved the consent agenda at the June 10 meeting. Those approvals, made without any discussion at the meeting, included a two-year $365,400 consultant contract with a mistaken attachment that went undetected by the board and district officials.

The mistake, realized and discussed two weeks later, has brought into question the school board's transparency, open access and accountability in its practice of having jam-packed consent agendas. Board members are expected to look through all the information, read the attachments and come prepared. But some say having so many items makes it difficult to spot everything.

Ultimately, the right information for the consultant contract was signed and executed and a motion to return the contract to new business was defeated by the board.

But the mistaken agenda item went unnoticed until the day before the June 24 meeting, when the minutes were being prepared for board approval.

The June 24 meeting had 60 items on the consent agenda, coming in at about $5.3 million expenditures of district money. The June 10 board meeting had 20 items on the consent agenda, adding up to $21 million in expenditures.

With one fiscal year ending and another beginning, approving contracts and ordering items for the new year is normal course of business, said Julie Aranibar, board chairman.

"We all know the routine. Nobody should be surprised that June and July are very heavy months," she said.

But board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner -- who called the validity of the contract into question because of the mistaken attachment -- says having that many items on the consent agenda is dishonest to the board and to the public.

"The number of consent items crammed into the June 24 meeting was abusive of the public and the board," he said.

Items on the consent agenda are approved without individual discussion, but board members can make motions to take specific items off the consent agenda so they can be discussed in more detail.

All told for the month of June, the board approved more than $26 million in expenditures without a discussion during the board meeting.

School board member Robert Gause said the board is working to change its culture from that of previous boards who did not question expenditures or the district's leadership -- which led the district to the current financial crisis -- to a new era where questions are welcome.

Creating an agenda

A copy of the district agenda, including attachments and information, is posted on the district's website a week in advance of the school board meeting. The agenda is put together by Aranibar with the help of district staff members. Agendas are often updated from the original posting, including being updated on the day of the meeting to reflect new information.

Between the time the information is posted and the start of the meeting, board members and members of the public can review the information and ask questions of the district officials involved with the specific items.

"Several of the board members meet with us the week prior after the information is posted," said Superintendent Rick Mills. "We post this seven days out. Many board members meet as they have questions."

Aranibar said board members are supposed to submit their questions by noon Friday so the questions can be answered prior to the board meetings Tuesdays. Items posted on the consent agenda have already been discussed at a board workshop and should be ready to be approved, and the issues have already been vetted in the public, Aranibar said.

"Consent means it doesn't need to be discussed because it is routine in running the school district," she added.

Incorrect information

During the June 10 meeting, the board unanimously approved the $365,000 expenditure for a two-year contract with Atlantic Research Partners to provide training for the district's principals. The county previously worked with Atlantic Research Partners on executive leadership when Mills came in as superintendent.

The company describes itself as "experienced practitioners who specialize in customized support services proven to strengthen instruction and increase student achievement."

The company has faculty offices in Chicago, but billing and operations are done in Jacksonville. The co-founder and CEO of the company is Joseph Wise, a former Duval County superintendent who was fired by the school board in 2007 after two years in the district.

Clients of the company include Chicago Public Schools, where Mills was a former administrator, Minneapolis Public Schools, St. Lucie Public Schools and Seminole County Schools. The company provides support in leadership, culture and curriculum.

One of three attachments under that specific agenda item was incorrect on the original June 10 agenda and was approved by the board with the incorrect attachment.

"It was just an accident," Aranibar said.

The correct contract agreement was signed and executed after that meeting, school district officials said.

At last week's meeting, Miner wanted to pull that item off the approval of the June 10 meeting and move it to new business.

"The information that was supposed to be there for the community and for us wasn't fully there," Miner said.

No board member or school official corrected the error on the agenda until Monday, the day before the minutes were to go before the board for final approval. The item was then updated on the board agenda and the minutes reflected the update.

The board voted down Miner's motion to strike that item from the minutes and list it as new business. Since the wording of the motion was correct, and the contract was executed, the board decided to include both attachments in the minutes of the meeting and include a sentence explaining what happened.

Asking questions

Although Mills and Aranibar said Miner's questions should be answered before the meeting, Gause said a culture of asking questions is necessary for the district, especially coming off of the previous administration, where questions weren't asked and the district got into fiscal trouble.

"What we used to have was people not even asking questions," Gause said.

He added if board members could let school district officials know in advance that questions exist, the correct district staff member can be on hand at the meeting to answer the questions during the meeting.

But Aranibar said the board needs to be respectful of the staff members' and public's time. She said she has received feedback from community members who say the district board meetings run too long and are often repetitive.

"We have to be respectful of our people's time," she said.

If board members are prepared and have asked questions in advance, the meetings will run more smoothly, she added.

Miner is pushing for a different approach. He said any item more than $200,000 should not be included on the consent agenda, there should be fewer items on the consent agenda and that more public discussion should occur during the meetings to make sure the board and public are fully informed on how the public's money is being spent.

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

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