Bad record-keeping, other errors could cost Manatee County School District almost $174,000

The school district may lose future state funding with the discovery of reporting errors and flawed record-keeping in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, a historical problem in Manatee County and surrounding districts.

A report from the Florida Auditor General revealed 44 findings between 14 schools in the Manatee district, including records that were “not properly or accurately prepared,” along with records that couldn’t be found during the audit.

Diana Greene worked as Manatee’s superintendent during the period in question. Citing past audits, she said the findings are not unusual for a school district.

Greene hopes the district’s new business management software, or ERP system, will improve state reporting in the future. Defects hindered the software after its launch in July, but district administrators have said they’re addressing the issue.

“Technology vastly improves the accuracy, and I guess a perfect example would be attendance,” Greene said. “We used to be very paper-driven in taking attendance, and many times had errors or somebody’s signature wasn’t there, so therefore it’s counted as not being documented properly.”

While the office issued its report in late-December, a website error blocked the report from public view until early January, according to an email from Micah Rodgers, the state’s audit manager for district school boards.

Manatee received $115.7 million through the Florida Education Finance Program in 2016-2017, and auditors feel the district was overpaid by nearly $174,000. Their estimate left out several factors and served as a starting point.

The estimate resulted from errors in Manatee’s reporting of student enrollment and teacher certification, but auditors also noted problems with transportation data reported to the state.

They declined to estimate the impact on funding, but transportation errors would add to Manatee’s possible loss. The district received $7.2 million for transportation in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

The Florida Department of Education is now calculating the final adjustments, which would come out of a future allocation. Manatee will then have a chance to appeal the decision, according to an email from Audrey Walden, a DOE spokeswoman.

Doug Wagner, the deputy superintendent of operations, said Manatee improved since previous audits. The auditor general issued similar reports to Manatee in the past:

  • In 2016, the office recommended a future reduction of approximately $114,000.

  • In 2014, the office recommended a future reduction of approximately $637,000.

  • In 2011, the office recommended a future reduction of approximately $437,000.

In last year’s report for Hillsborough County, the office recommended a future reduction of more than $355,000. And its 2017 report for Sarasota County recommended a future reduction of nearly $193,000.

A manual, paper-based system caused historical problems in Manatee, according to Wagner. He also cited high employee turnover, which leads to an ever-changing process in each department.

Though the district has an option to appeal the state’s funding adjustment, Wagner said the district would decline.

“It’s our job to ensure we are meeting the state reporting requirements and these audits help us identify what we can do differently to mitigate this,” he said. “We need to have it 100 percent.”

State funding is based on a calculation that involves student enrollment, along with the number of hours and days that students commit to their assigned programs. The calculation is also affected by instructors who teach a subject without proper certification or approval.

Auditors started by reviewing the classification, assignment and verification of student enrollment in Manatee County.

They noted reporting issues in Manatee’s exceptional student education (ESE) and career education programs, along with its program in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL).

For example, five teachers were not properly certified or approved by the school board to teach ESOL at Bayshore Elementary School, the report said, adding that parents were never contacted about the teachers’ out-of-field status.

At Palmetto High School, “more work hours were reported than were supported by the timecard for one student in Career Education,” the report states.

“The course schedules for several students were incorrectly reported” at Samoset Elementary School, it continued.

Auditor reported issues at 14 of Manatee’ schools:

  • Bayshore Elementary School: one finding.

  • Bayshore High School: six findings.
  • G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School: one finding.
  • Palmetto High School: two findings.
  • Robert H. Prine Elementary School: six findings.
  • Samoset Elementary School: two findings.
  • James Tillman Elementary Magnet School: five findings.
  • Sea Breeze Elementary School: four findings.
  • Horizons Academy: seven findings.
  • Marjorie G. Kinnan Elementary School: three findings.
  • Access to Education School: two findings.
  • Manatee School for the Arts and Sciences: two findings.
  • William Monroe Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication: two findings.
  • Manatee Virtual School: one finding.

The issues were “indicative of significant deficiencies” in the district’s internal controls, which are meant to prevent fraud or error, the report stated.

The state did a similar audit of students who use district transportation. Students have to meet certain criteria in order for Manatee to receive state funding, and some students were reported in the wrong category, according to the report.

For example, dozens of students were listed under the “hazardous walking” category, meaning they lived less than two miles from their assigned school and could face hazards on their walk to campus. Manatee could not back the students’ classification with documents, according to the report.

Auditors also said “the reported number of buses in operation was overstated,” according to their report.

Greene left the district to head Duval County schools in July, and Cynthia Saunders became the superintendent about six months before the state issued its report. She responded to the findings in a Dec. 14 letter to Florida’s auditor general, Sherrill Norman.

“The District agrees with the findings, regulatory citations and proposed adjustments and is taking the following steps to ensure the errors are not repeated in the future,” Saunders wrote, listing about 50 corrective actions.

Her response boiled down to more oversight, training and communication at the affected schools. The plan included more training for school registrars and other employees, along with regular audits of school-based records.

“We appreciate the efforts and professionalism during this audit process and will continue to strive for excellence,” Saunders wrote.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.