EAST COUNTY — First, the school district was scolded.
Then, its leaders were commended.
A panel of state lawmakers criticized the Manatee County School District at a Joint Legislative Auditing Committee in Tallahassee, Monday, Jan. 13 for poor record keeping and over spending outlined in two reports from the State Auditor General’s Office.
Those reports revealed the district could spend more than $9 million to recover from major financial errors past leadership had made.
But then, the lawmakers praised Superintendent Rick Mills for providing a thorough response to the audits and expressed confidence in his ability to move the district forward.
“The tempo to the meeting was set when the Auditor General presented the audits,” Mills said. “The lawmakers were upset and concerned. They were saying this was the worst conduct they’ve ever seen from a school district. I was not there to dispute that. I was there to gain confidence from lawmakers that we are doing what is necessary to be fiscally responsible.”
Mills and a team from the district, including his deputy superintendents, Don Hall and Diana Greene, Michael Boyer, chief financial officer, Tommy Crosby, director of finance, and Julie Aranibar, school board chairwoman, traveled to Tallahassee for the legislative meeting to gain support from lawmakers in a bid to reduce costs — or amortize the payments — owed to the state.
“Once my team got up and presented our economic and fiscal recovery plans and articulated how we would fix the problems, the lawmakers were complementary of what we are doing," Mills said. "Now they want to know how we prevent the situation from happening again.”
Mills told the committee the district would close out the fiscal year with at least $8 million in reserves — a number that could shrink based on how much the district loses as a consequence of the audits.
The district is working with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) to determine the final amount.
Looking for more momentum to lessen the impact, Mills will meet with Sen. Bill Galvano Tuesday, Dec. 14, and the superintendent has plans to speak with Rep. Jim Boyd and Rep. Greg Steube.
Mills believes if he drums enough support around his plan to better the district— steps that have included recreating the district’s organizational chart, empowering the public through transparency and building position control, payroll encumbrances and requisition back into the budget process — the fines from the state will be minimal.
Doing so would allow Mills to fill a promise that is appearing more difficult to attain.
Mills’ financial recovery plan, which the FDOE approved in June, promised to restore a required 3% fund balance — $10.3 million — by June 30, 2014.
The superintendent, who battled the flu during the trip to the capital, sent a text to the school board afterward, telling them they would have been proud of his team’s presentation.
He vowed not to back down his campaign for leniency.
“I am not taking any chances,” Mills said. “I am confident if I can get the confidence of state officials, we can get something worked out with FDOE in early February.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].