Auditors call for improved record-keeping in Manatee schools. The district has ideas

An audit of home-school records in the Manatee County School District, prompted by allegations against the superintendent and a request by the school board’s chairman, revealed a need for better procedures and security.

On Dec. 6, the Florida Department of Education accused Superintendent Cynthia Saunders of directing staff to code high school seniors as “withdrawn to home education” if they dropped out to pursue a GED, inflating graduation rates between 2014 and 2016, when she held a different leadership role.

The allegations against Saunders were largely focused on whether students actually entered home school, even after the proper documentation was filed, but parts of the investigation centered on bad record-keeping.

Dave Miner, the school board’s chairman, requested a follow-up from the internal auditors at Carr, Riggs and Ingram, which then reviewed files at the district’s enrollment office and every district high school. Auditors published a report in January, and the district outlined its plan this week.

Though most seniors had documentation to back up their home-school status between 2016 and 2018, two were missing a “letter of intent,” the document used to enroll students in home school. Another three seniors were missing their entire file in the district’s enrollment office.

The audit report also urged stronger, more standardized security at each high school.

“One school had the registrar’s desk in the middle of the file room, one school had a break room in the file room and kept the filing cabinets locked, other schools had the registrar outside of the file room and the file room was locked,” the report states.

“The number of people with keys varied from 3 to 8 or more,” it continues.

Auditors made six recommendations to improve Manatee’s record-keeping, and one seemed to address most of the district’s shortcomings. Moving toward an online database, away from thousands of papers and boxes, would improve the district’s ability to locate and secure its files.

“It really would benefit everyone,” Saunders said on Wednesday.

Saunders attended a meeting of the district’s Audit Committee, along with Don Sauer, the district’s supervisor of student demographics, projections and assignment.

Sauer said the district could technically put a warehouse full of information on a handful of small flash drives The district tried to digitize its files about 10 years ago, he said, but a financial crisis halted the project.

After speaking with another school district that digitized its files, Sauer said it may cost about $150,000 to scan all of Manatee’s documents, and $17,500 to maintain the annual software license.

It would likely take five years to catch up with every grade level, including work from both district administrators and school-level employees.

“If you think that you’re going to go in and digitize 50,000 records in a year, you will have mutiny of staff, because they’ve got so much stuff to do,” Sauer said.

The district is also missing a chief information officer, a vital position needed to start the project. In the meantime, Sauer said he would discuss security options with individual schools, including using fire resistant cabinets, better locks and centralized rooms.

He also announced a plan for the upcoming school year. If a school codes departing students as withdrawn to home school, the enrollment office should receive the proper documentation.

Sauer hopes to enforce a verification process, requiring the enrollment office to collect the paperwork before a high school is allowed to code its departing students as withdrawn to home school.

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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.