TALLAHASSEE — A panel of state lawmakers blasted the Manatee County school district on Monday for what they called a “radioactive” audit of the school system’s finances.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said state Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami. The audit report questioned more than $7.2 million in school district spending over the past five years
Said state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla: “I’m embarrassed as a Floridian that such conduct took place.”
But lawmakers expressed confidence in Manatee Superintendent Rick W. Mills, the retired lieutenant colonel who was tapped to lead the district out of its budget crisis in March. They praised Mills for his leadership, and for providing a thorough response to the state audit report.
“You got handed a big task, and it seems like you are handling it with your military muster,” said state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington.
The Manatee school system confronted a budget disaster in 2012-13, when the district’s general fund dipped from a deficit of $4.1 million to a deficit of $8.6 million.
When state auditors took a closer look, they discovered that millions of dollars in district spending may have run afoul of state and federal guidelines. The questionable expenses included $1.7 million earmarked for special-needs students and $92,000 for improving teacher quality.
The auditors also found that Manatee schools officials held on to $728,000 in capital construction money that was supposed to be returned to the state.
All told, the audit could result in an $8 million hit to the school district’s budget.
Addressing the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee in Tallahassee on Monday, Mills explained the problem in simple terms: The district had overspent its budget by about $38 million over the last four years.
“We didn’t open a closet and a skeleton came out,” said Deputy
Superintendent for Operations Don Hall, who was hired in May. “We opened a closet and an entire cemetery fell out.”
Some of the problems persisted even after Mills took the helm at the school district, including hiring teachers who had not been budgeted and charges to the special education program that were not properly documented. Hall said the district has since revamped its accounting practices.
“Our goal is no repeat findings,” he said.
He also said the school system has taken steps to reduce spending, such as slashing utility costs, cutting nearly 100 central-office positions and freezing non-essential hiring.
The measures could result in millions of dollars in annual savings, he said.
Hall predicted the district would close out the fiscal year with at least $8 million in reserves — a number that could shrink based on how much the district loses as a consequence of the audit.
Hall said he is working with the state Department of Education to determine the final amount, and that the district could sell some of its properties to generate extra cash, if necessary. Monday’s panel will not weigh in on fines to the Manatee County school district; instead, that decision will be left to the Florida Department of Education.
Despite the district’s plans to move forward, the lawmakers were troubled that its financial situation had become so dire.
Hays said the committee should use the Manatee school district as a “poster child” for financial mismanagement, and create new state laws that would prevent similar situations from happening in other districts.
Hays called upon the superintendent to look into the possibility of criminal charges.
“Can we find anyone whose pockets were filled with the proceeds?” he asked.
School system officials said it wasn’t clear if any crime had been committed, but that they planned on holding former employees accountable.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.