Manatee County school board must focus on rebuilding trust in audit probe

The Manatee County school district's audit committee expressed the deep public distrust of the district administration with its recommendation Thursday that the school board hire outside counsel to supervise a forensic audit of last year's disastrous budget.

Composed entirely of community members and free of administration representatives after interim Superintendent Bob Gagnon recused himself from the panel, the audit committee wants the investigation to be completely independent of district influence to ensure the results are not tainted.

The message is simple: There is a crisis of confidence within the community, a crisis that has been building for several years over administrative and board priorities, decisions and spending.

The opportunity to rebuild trust is here and now. The school board cannot afford to fumble this critical chance at redemption.

This month's revelation of epic financial mismanagement only adds fuel to the public fire over the school administration's lack of accountability and transparency.

The disclosure that errors in the 2011-12 budget left a $3.5 million deficit in the district's reserve fund amid a lack of budgeting for $8 million in expenditures and the subsequent uproar compelled Tim McGonegal to resign immediately last Monday, months ahead of his announced February retirement.

Gagnon, appointed interim superintendent in an emergency situation Monday, is still in his first year in district administration after being promoted to assistant superintendent from his previous post as principal of Manatee High School.

He made the right move by opting out of the audit committee process at Thursday's panel meeting. School board attorney John Bowen also bowed out of panel proceedings.

While the audit committee espouses the hiring of an outside law firm just to oversee the audit, the school board should take that one step further on Monday. To be truly free of any appearance of undue influence, the board should distance itself from all members of the district's old guard.

That includes Bowen. He does not enjoy the full confidence of the board.

Both Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter have been critical of his counsel in the past, and district critics held a news conference in June 2011 to advocate for his removal.

This past June, Bowen announced his retirement in June 2013.

On Monday, the school board will hear the audit committee's recommendation on the hiring of an outside law firm.

Along those same lines, the board should consider hiring its own independent counsel to assure the community of its commitment to overcome this crisis of confidence.

Anyone viewed as part of the problem cannot be a party to the solution.

The cost will be a concern, as it must. But can trust be rebuilt on the cheap?

Moving forward, community confidence must be a school board priority.