Questions surround Manatee School District’s planned use of extra tax revenue

More than one year after Manatee County voters approved a one-mill increase on property taxes, the school district has yet to finalize its spending plans, and recent meetings have only added to the ongoing confusion.

Along with improved salaries for teachers and other district employees, the referendum vowed to improve students’ education. It said Manatee would use part of the tax revenue to expand career and technical education, along with programs for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

District officials believe they can use added tax revenue to buy technology and other equipment for classrooms, especially if they back each purchase with an explanation. Speaking at Tuesday’s meeting of the Citizens Financial Oversight Committee, a group of volunteers who oversee the referendum money, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said she verified her opinion with state auditors.

Several days later, the state seemed to refute such claims in an email to the Bradenton Herald.

“We also spoke to the auditor general, who just did our audit — our ERP audit — and all of our other audits. She’s also about to do our finance audit. She also supported and agreed with our terminology,” Saunders said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We could easily document it and they will be auditing us this fall. They would approve of such expenditures, and we got confirmation from the auditor general as well,” she continued.

When a reporter asked for verification of the conversation between Manatee officials and state auditors, the deputy auditor general for educational entities and local government audits, Gregory Centers, provided an emailed response.

“Our staff spoke with Manatee School District personnel regarding the District’s one mill property tax revenue but gave no assurance regarding the District’s planned or actual expenditures from this revenue,” Centers wrote.

“During our conversation with District personnel, we emphasized the District’s responsibility to document the authority for these expenditures and advised the District to seek guidance from the District’s attorney should any questions arise about this process,” Centers continued.

In response, the district’s chief financial officer, Heather Jenkins, said the state’s comment— that auditors “gave no assurance regarding the District’s planned or actual expenditures”— did not contradict Saunders’ comment that an auditor “supported and agreed with our terminology.”

“We stated that based on the information we provided them verbally, the expenditures we discussed, if aligned with curriculum, would likely pass an audit,” Jenkins said in a prepared statement, sent through district spokesman Mike Barber.

A question from Steve Cerven, a member of the volunteer committee, led to further uncertainty during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Is the auditor general’s opinion a written one?” he said, addressing the superintendent.

“Yes,” Saunders replied. But the chief financial officer, Jenkins, soon clarified that she and the state auditor had a verbal conversation, not written communications.

In her follow-up response on Friday afternoon, Jenkins said the superintendent was not referring to an opinion from the auditor general. Rather, she was confirming the district’s intention to present school board attorney James Dye with a list of possible purchases, and to gather his response.

The district plans to give its board attorney the list and get his written opinion by the committee’s next meeting, said Doug Wagner, the deputy superintendent of business services and operations.

“We are going to give him a written document, and he will give us a written document back if he agrees,” Wagner said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The conversation is one of several to follow meetings of the oversight committee. About five months ago, the group questioned $2.2 million slated for new equipment and upgraded laboratories at the Parrish Community High School and other sites.

The district then agreed not to use its extra revenue for construction projects, a category that falls outside of the tax referendum.

“We would agree that the purpose should not be for brick-and-mortar construction, tearing out walls or flooring,” Saunders said on Tuesday.

“But if you needed to buy any type of instructional products, whether it’s high-dollar robotics or computers or laser printers, if a teacher or students were using it for instruction, it is allowable,” she continued.

Tuesday was the final session for committee member Larry Simmons, whose term ended after the meeting. He raised another question about the use of Manatee’s added tax revenue.

“Would that include band equipment?” he said. “It’s definitely instructional.”

While band equipment is used for instructional purposes, the referendum called for the expansion of STEM programs and technical education, not band classes, Superintendent Saunders said.

Perhaps the money could be used for instruments, she said, adding that Manatee could expand the referendum to include art programs during the renewal vote in 2022.

“I think you could, but I think there could be some counterparts saying, because we didn’t specify arts or music, maybe we should stay away from that,” she continued.

At the urging of committee member Diana Dill, the superintendent said she would bring the question to state auditors.

“It doesn’t exclude a musical instrument, but it doesn’t emphasize that,” Saunders said.