Auditors OK school district’s use of sales tax dollars. But they did have some questions

Auditors have determined the Manatee County School District was upholding its duty to properly collect and spend sales tax proceeds approved by voters more than two years ago, aside from one lingering question: Could the money be used to furnish schools?

And despite the draft report, members of the district’s Audit Committee this week questioned several other expenses, including the repair of HVAC units, or air systems, at an administrative building.

When residents voted in November 2016, the ballot said Manatee would use the money to “reduce overcrowding, reduce portable classrooms, renovate existing schools, build new schools where needed, purchase technology, and improve student safety and achievement.”

The Audit Committee, a group of volunteers who oversee spending in the school district, heard from internal auditors at Carr, Riggs and Ingram. The agency tracked invoices filed during a period of about one and a half years, keeping the referendum language in mind.

Committee member Joe Blitzko was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but he asked auditors to share a concern about two invoices related to furniture purchases.

As Johnson Middle School and Wakeland Elementary School merged, the district spent about $105,000 to buy furniture for the new school, Johnson-Wakeland School of International Baccalaureate.

“Furniture, in my brain, is part of building a new school, so it’s not something I would question,” said Susan Agruso, the committee’s chair.

“However, Mr. Blitzko has raised that question because the bonds, the sales surtax, does not specifically say furniture, but it does say building a school,” she continued.

Agruso asked district officials to clear the invoices with the bond attorneys at Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson, a Tampa-based law firm.

However, the firm already noted its approval of furniture purchases and other expenses in a March 2018 letter to school board members, which was again discussed at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

The firm reviewed more than a dozen projects and associated costs, including the furniture purchase, and it took issue with only one expense: $1.9 million for the purchase of buses, which don’t fall under the referendum language.

While the letter approved of Manatee’s other purchases, committee member questioned Wednesday’s draft report from internal auditors.

Auditors reviewed about $877,000 in spending for HVAC repairs and other work at the district’s Professional Support Center, and committee member Mary Foreman asked why the project was eligible for tax and bond revenues.

She also questioned a demolition, both above and below ground, of the old Manatee Technical College at 34th Street West. The internal auditors reviewed about $543,000 in spending between the two projects.

Thirdly, she probed the $3.6 million expense for a “central computer purchase,” and the spending of nearly $44,000 on lobby renovations at the district’s School Support Center.

How do the projects relate to student success, she asked, and are administrative buildings considered educational facilities?

Agruso, the committee chair, shared in Foreman’s concern about the HVAC repairs. While a functioning air system is necessary, it wasn’t clear if the referendum covered such repairs.

“Is it meeting the language in that (referendum)? I think we need to look at that,” said Cynthia Saunders, the district superintendent.

District officials went on to justify the remaining questions. Saunders said the demolition of MTC was necessary because homeless men and women camped at the vacant campus, posing a security risk to the nearby Bayshore High School.

When it came to the “central computer purchase,” Saunders said the district replaces a portion of school computers on a yearly basis, keeping the hardware updated.

Similarly, the lobby renovations were meant to improve safety and security, said Heather Jenkins, the district’s chief financial officer.

The 2016 ballot listed both technology and student safety as planned expenses.

Committee members agreed that a final report should include more details about what auditors reviewed, how exactly the money was used and why it qualified for tax or bond revenue. More details could eliminate future questions or suspicion.

“I think it needs to be as complete and transparent as possible,” Foreman said.

The half-cent sales tax first passed in 2002, and 59 percent of voters favored the extension in 2016, pushing its expiration date to December 2032.

And while the extension didn’t start until January 2018, the district quickly used its upcoming tax revenue to secure bonds worth a net total of $150 million, so auditors tracked all revenues and expenditures related to both the bonds and the sales tax.

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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.