Cautious approach on Manatee County school district consent agendas

July 3, 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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The current debate on the Manatee County school board over consent agendas brings to mind past practices on budgetary matters.

Consent agendas are a routine and common parliamentary tool used to streamline meetings with quick approvals on spending after budget items have been vetted by school district staff.

Elected officials are responsible for scrutinizing spending and safeguarding taxpayer monies, not rubber-stamping expenses without question -- as happened under the previous school district administration with an all-too-compliant school board.

But the public complained about a lack of detailed information on budget items -- to the point of being misled and misinformed. Those outcries proved to be justified after a host of audits uncovered gross mismanagement and improper spending for years.

With millions in tax spending, the consent agenda process should be under a microscope -- especially given the recent history in this school district.

Today, though, the new administration has committed to greater transparency than previously practiced. The district agenda, budget details and other documents are posted on the school system's website a week in advance of school board meetings so scrutiny is welcome.

Questions can be asked in advance -- by the public as well as board members, the latter of whom can meet with the superintendent and staff ahead of meetings.

The policy issue now before the board is whether more items should be removed from the consent agenda and further dissected at board meetings, which already can be time consuming and burdensome on the public.

With a new fiscal year coming, the board must move on approving contracts and purchases to prepare for students returning to classrooms.

While that's a reasonable and traditional business model for school districts, a valid criticism arose about the June 24 consent agenda. With some 60 items costing around $5.3 million, this is too much for both the board and public to digest in only a week's time.

Plus, the June 10 board meeting contained $21 million in approved spending, but one item -- a two-year consultant contract worth $365,400 -- contained a mistaken attachment. Undetected then by the board and district, the error in one of the attachments on the contract was later discovered and corrected.

This was only one mistake found among the dozens and dozens of consent agenda items approved heading into the new school year -- "just an accident," school board chair Julie Aranibar told Herald education reporter Meghin Delaney for an in-depth look at the consent agenda issue published Sunday.

The school district has made great progress on transparency and accountability, but lighter consent agendas and more attention to detail appear warranted.

With the financial scandal of years past still coming to light, the public deserves a cautious approach from the district and board in order to rebuild confidence in the school system.

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