Voters approved extra tax for schools. Board split on how much citizen oversight it wants

Meet the School Board of Manatee County

Meet the members of the Manatee School Board and the schools they represent.
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Meet the members of the Manatee School Board and the schools they represent.

Members of the Manatee County School Board are once again trying to to rein in the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee. The group of volunteers first convened more than 11 months ago, focused on matters related to the voter-approved increase on property taxes.

In the referendum brought to voters last year, the school district promised to form a committee that would ensure “proper fiscal stewardship of funds,” meaning that tax dollars are spent appropriately.

Rev. James Golden, the school board’s newest member, expressed concerns at the board workshop on Tuesday afternoon. He said the committee should determine whether the additional $37 million in estimated tax revenue is being properly spent — no more, no less.

The referendum outlined several areas where the money could be used:

  • Recruiting and retaining district staff with competitive salaries.
  • Increasing student achievement.
  • Expanding career and technical education programs.
  • Supporting charter schools.
  • Improving courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Along with tracking the money itself, Manatee’s volunteer committee hopes to focus on results. Are teachers coming to the school district? Are they staying? And are students benefiting from their upgraded programs?

Golden said the committee was overstepping its mission by reviewing matters outside of spending, and that Superintendent Cynthia Saunders was responsible for tracking and reporting the outcomes.

“I’m not looking to an audit committee to give me a result,” he said. “I’m looking to the superintendent. That’s who is the chief person in charge of this district.”

But the committee’s chairman, Bob Christopher, pointed to another sentence in the referendum.

“In addition, the committee shall identify relevant outcomes and report results to the community,” it states.

“Relevant outcomes” were the focus of Tuesday’s meeting. Golden believes that relevant outcome refers to how the district spends its extra tax money, an opinion voiced by his peer last month.

Golden and board member Charlie Kennedy attended the committee’s meeting on March 19, when its members discussed academic achievement, one of the areas listed in Manatee’s tax referendum.

“This is the financial oversight committee, not the academic oversight committee,” Kennedy said at the time.

According to its chairman, the committee hopes to collect data from the school district and the state. Its members plan to review the data, confirm its accuracy and report to the community in a simple, understandable format — a charge that goes beyond financial accounting.

“If you want money in the budget and money out of the budget, and that’s all you want, you ought to disband this committee because we have an Audit Committee,” Christopher said, referring to another volunteer group in the district.

It seems Kennedy took the comment on face value, because at Tuesday’s meeting he proposed merging the Citizens’ Financial Audit Committee and the longstanding Audit Committee, which was created after the district’s financial meltdown in 2012.

“I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do,” Kennedy said. “I just wanted to put it out there as a talking point.”

Later that afternoon, the committee’s chairman said his comment was not meant to be a suggestion.

“I was trying to use the extreme to make a point,” Christopher said.

To board member Scott Hopes, “relevant outcomes” included all of the outcomes listed in Manatee’s referendum, including student achievement and employee retention.

However, he did agree with Kennedy’s anxiety about the committee’s intentions.

Kennedy feared the committee would be “looking for negatives” or “looking to undermine” the school board. That fear has passed, he continued, praising the committee for its “healthy skepticism.”

“As we set forth to create this committee, there was obvious concerns around the table,” Hopes followed. “Was it being stacked one way or the other? And it really wasn’t. This committee has evolved, I believe, into a committee that wants to assist the district in ensuring that we’re able to renew the tax.”

Hopes and several committee members argued in favor of a results-focused group. When the tax increase expires in 2022, they hope to build a case for its renewal.

The school board’s vice-chair, Gina Messenger, agreed on the need for more clarity, an issue that’s likely to surface again. The conversation on relevant outcomes and the committee’s purpose will arise a future meeting, said Dave Miner, the school board’s chairman.

“To what extent has money coming in affected the number of teachers that are coming to our district from Sarasota?” he said. “That could be considered a relevant outcome.”

Conversations about the group and its mission first reached a boiling point in June of last year. After it established the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee, the school board voted unanimously to expand the committee’s authority.

Along with the new tax revenue, it could oversee “other areas of financial concerns brought forward by a committee member, a member of the public, the superintendent or school board members.”

But the school board later voted 3-2 to restrict the group in early June, making the tax referendum its sole focus. Miner and Kennedy voted in favor of the motion, as did former board member John Colon.

A majority of the committee soon voted to request broader authority from the school board. In his response on June 26, Miner labeled the request for more oversight as a “resolution of contempt.”