BRADENTON -- Midway through the academic year, the Manatee County School District moves into 2015 with a host of new initiatives and and some holdover challenges.
The district faces major issues ranging from financial to academic to legal.
The district has righted the financial shortcomings from late 2013-14 and is midway through the first year of a balanced budget cycle, according to school officials.
Students also made gains academically, but standards and tests are different this spring.
The district also hired a new law firm to help handle an uptick in lawsuits.
Financial situation improves
In September, the Manatee County School Board approved a $627.5 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year with member Dave "Watchdog" Miner voting no.
Budget planning was hampered by audit findings showing the district had mismanaged state funds, which had to be repaid.
After first projecting the state-required fund reserve for the 2013-14 fiscal year would not be met, district officials managed to build $14.4 million in reserves, meeting a legal minimum for the first time since 2009.
District officials said they expect to close the fund balance at $16.5 million next fiscal year.
Since the budget passed, the district promoted Rebecca Roberts to chief financial officer, replacing Michael Boyer, who resigned in June. Roberts worked with an interim CFO to create the 2014-15 budget and has been providing monthly budget updates to the board since officially taking on her new role in late October.
New standards, tests
For the first time, state tests will be tied to Florida Standards this spring.
Florida Standards are the state's new curriculum based on the Common Core standards adopted throughout the country with a few exceptions.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests have been phased out and the new tests are causing anxiety among parents and educators throughout the state.
With the more difficult Florida Standards tests, district officials project a drop in grades, although the first year's scores will be used as a baseline for improvement, officials said.
"Next year will be a little bit of a shock," said Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instruction, last week when high school grades were released. "I'm confident after we get a better understanding, we'll be ready."
Another issue expected to boomerang in 2015 is the district plan for school security in 33 elementary schools. Two elementary schools and all district middle and high schools are now covered by local law enforcement officials known as school resources officers.
The remaining elementary schools were covered by private security officers for a month in 2014 before the district canceled the contract with Sarasota Security Patrol over a Sunshine Law violation.
Board members and the public have called for finding ways to provide law enforcement officials in elementary schools. Superintendent Rick Mills recently said he was working with local police chiefs to work something out for the 2015-16 school year.
With expanded growth in the county, the district wants to hire a company to analyze opening new schools, closing existing schools or redistricting.
The Manatee County School Board is slated to award a one-year contract in April.
Student enrollment has increased two consecutive years. While the district is operating under capacity overall, its high schools are over capacity.
The company would analyze data and present the school board with options.
Legal issues continue to linger. The board recently approved a $100,000 contract with Blalock Walters, a Bradenton law firm.
Eight lawyers -- including those with experience providing legal services for the district -- will work with school officials. The firm will bill the district $165 an hour to be paid from the staff attorney's department budget.
The decision does not affect any other firms the district works with, staff attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum has said, but does provide an additional set of lawyers for the district to call on when issues arise.
Among the district's outstanding legal concerns:
A lawsuit alleging the district is violating its recess policy;
A lawsuit from Sarasota Security Patrol claiming Mills didn't have the authority to cancel the security contract and the district owes the company money;
Three Title IX lawsuits stemming from allegations Roderick Frazier, a parent liaison and assistant coach, made advances to female students, are still unsettled -- although one is expected to be settled with the district shortly, pending board approval; and
A lawsuit from the former Manatee High School student who first brought the Frazier claims.
Professional standards investigator Troy Pumphrey has threatened to sue the district over public statements Miner made about him. Miner said Pumphrey lied on his resume when he said he held a professional investigator's license when he applied to work for the district.
Pumphrey was in the process of applying for the license but did not actually have one when he claimed he did on his resume.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.