Auditors fault Manatee schools for new computer system. It’s not the only problem they found

The School District of Manatee County failed to screen at least eight contractors, to properly compensate certain teachers and to effectively plan for its multimillion-dollar ERP software project, according to a new report.

In its report on district operations, the Florida Auditor General listed eight findings on Manatee’s enterprise resource planning software, or ERP project, along with its improper use of teacher scholarships and its gaps in digital security, among other issues.

Based on a review of several years worth of school board minutes and internal audit reports, the Bradenton Herald reported in mid-January that Manatee’s ERP project, which officially began in 2016, was plagued by understaffing, slow decision making, aggressive deadlines and possible deception by upper management, among other issues.

Such findings were largely missing from the state’s report. Auditors focused on weaknesses in the planning process, urging Manatee to negotiate better contracts in the future, including agreements that list clear goals and financial penalties for companies that don’t meet key milestones.

Auditors were concerned with the school district’s method for scoring products and choosing vendors, along with the school board’s decision to continually approve change orders as the project grew — perhaps without weighing all available options. The district’s processes, or lack thereof, were unclear to state auditors.

“Absent District records evidencing these considerations, there is a lack of transparency regarding the selection process, increasing the risk of favoritism and for the District to acquire a less suitable ERP system,” the report states.

Manatee also planned to save significant time and money by effectively copying an ERP system used in Lee County, a requirement that was not specified in the district’s original message to vendors, according to the report. The plan ultimately failed, leading to major cost overruns.

Cynthia Saunders, who was sworn-in as superintendent last June, responded to the findings in an April 8 memo to the state’s auditor general, Sherrill Norman. The school district’s spokesman, Mike Barber, said the memo would serve as Manatee’s official response.

“The Executive Leadership Team of the District is committed to the implementation of the recommendations to increase accountability, transparency and to promote effective and efficient operations throughout the District,” the superintendent wrote.

According to their report, dated April 11 and published online Monday, state auditors found:

  • Unclear or lacking methods for implementing the new ERP software, especially when it came to scoring the products, negotiating strong contracts and monitoring progress. In her memo, Saunders said the district would better analyze and communicate Manatee’s needs before creating plans, rating companies and forming contracts.
  • Weak oversight of contracts and district payments, a problem that was also noted in 2017. Auditors reviewed millions of dollars in payments and found that Manatee sometimes failed to verify that services were fully completed, or that invoices were for the proper amount, especially when it came to school resource officers. The district said it would require SRO’s to sign in each day, starting on April 1.
  • Inadequate review of certain construction costs, specifically when it came to negotiating, monitoring and documenting the best prices. Auditors reviewed general costs — travel expenses, utilities, permits and clean-up, for example — in two projects between 2017 and 2018. They discovered nearly $78,000 in costs that were not justified by the construction companies. District officials obtained the paperwork after auditors shared their concerns. And while the district said it had unwritten procedures, Saunders’ memo said the district would better document its process going forward.
  • Improper calculation of certain employee salaries. When it came to educators who were on a grandfathered salary schedule between the 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 fiscal years, Manatee failed to base a portion of their salary on performance, placing blame on the union contract. Auditors pointed to state law, which requires a performance review.
  • A lack of documentation to vet the 250 charter school teachers who received nearly $397,000 in Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship awards during the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Similarly, the district paid a total of $54,800 to dozens of employees who were not eligible for the awards, a problem that was also noted in 2017. The district has since reassigned employees and “enhanced procedures” to prevent future issues, according to its response.
  • No background checks on five contractors who performed non-instructional services, such as fire alarm replacements and boiler inspections, along with three contractors who performed instructional work, such as speech and occupational therapy for students. Departments that hired a contractor did not always notify Human Resources to ensure a screening was performed, the district responded.
  • Poor control over information technology, allowing some employees to access students’ sensitive information, even though access wasn’t required for their everyday jobs. In response, the school district removed the access privileges of 82 employees.
  • Slow removal of IT access privileges for employees who left the district. Manatee officials promised to quickly address the IT security issues.

“We appreciate the professionalism and courtesy of the audit staff throughout the auditing process,” Saunders wrote, concluding her April 8 memo.

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