Manatee School Board passes budget, adds to recovery plan for deficit

MANATEE -- The Manatee County school board unanimously passed the 2012-13 school budget Monday after spending the last week finding new ways to correct a $3.5 million deficit in the school budget's reserve fund.

The $555,684,223 budget has a new corrective action plan that will bring the reserve fund up to 2 percent of the operating budget.

This isn't enough to meet the state mandate of 3 percent, but according to district officials, it's enough to proceed.

After announcing the deficit on Sept. 7, former superintendent Tim McGonegal revealed an action plan that would have brought reserves up to 1.8 percent. But the school board decided

last week that they wanted to improve reserves more. McGonegal resigned from his position Sept. 10.

The board needed about $770,000 to bring McGonegal's $5.7 million action plan to the 2 percent mark. The plan Interim Superintendent Bob Gagnon presented at Monday's meeting exceeded the needed amount by roughly $160,000.

The district will generate the extra funds by, among other things, operating the Amer-I-Can program for only one semester this year, as well as providing incentives for on-time retirement for eligible employees. Several district positions, including a district ESE specialist and computer programmer, will be held vacant for varying amounts of time.

Though not part of the actual plan, teachers can still get a 1 percent bonus proposed by McGonegal, but board members have the option of withholding that bonus from district employees, principals and assistant principals and saving up to $121,000 more.

The new plan also accounts for the estimated $200,000 cost of a forensic audit that will determine who caused and who knew about the deficit, stemming from the failure to budget for $8 million in expenses last year. This estimate also includes the costs of the law firm that the district audit committee has decided must oversee it to ensure public confidence in the process. This figure could change, Gagnon stressed, because negotiations have yet to begin with a law firm or audit firm.

According to state statutes, the Department of Education has 14 days to approve the district's new action plan, a plan that is required any time a district's reserves fall below 2 percent. But the process is not strictly defined.

Scott Martin, assistant superintendent for District Support Services, who corresponded with the department last week, spoke at the meeting and said that the state does not require a specific timeline to restore the reserves. The general expectation is that the district's plan bring the reserves out of the red by June 2013, and up to the 3 percent mandate by the following June.

"This is not a single-year phenomenon," Martin said. "We do not have to return to a 3 percent fund balance by the end of one fiscal year."

Some board members voiced the importance of strict oversight from the board on budget decisions by the superintendent as the district moves forward.

"I have grave concerns that this budget is built on shifting sands," board member Karen Carpenter said, before stating that because of the impending forensic audit and the possibility of reinstating a budget overview committee, she would support the budget.

Board Chairman Harry Kinnan stressed that the budget is flexible, and while the total number cannot change, items can be amended as the board sees fit.

At last week's school board meeting, the board unanimously passed the millage rates for this year.

The overall property tax rate passed by the board is now set at $7.589 per $1,000 of assessed property value, down 4.66 percent from last year's millage rate.

This means that a taxpayer with a home valued at $169,000 with a homestead exemption of $25,000 and no change in assessment will pay about $1,283 in school board taxes for the upcoming year.

That taxpayer is paying $53.42 less in school taxes than last year.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.