EAST COUNTY — Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills is responding to two damning audits from the state the only way he knows how — with a plan.
He’s confident his senior leadership team has already addressed many of the findings produced in two State Auditor General’s Office reports released in the past month — one on operational funding and the second on federal, grant-funded programs — that revealed the district could spend more than $9 million to recover from major financial errors made by past leadership.
“When we find a challenge, we handle it,” Mills said. “Good leaders get the brutal facts and move on. I am not interested in the blame game. We are in the move-on stage.”
The second report from the state that came Dec. 10 showed the Manatee County School District could see a $1.9 million reduction in its general fund balance, due to a series of mistakes caused by poor record-keeping and misused spending.
As in the first report, the district has 30 days to respond to the latest findings — by Jan. 9 — giving it a chance to mitigate some of the costs.
The $1.9 million figure from the new report consists of questioned costs from the 2012-13 year (see sidebar).
Some of the costs date back to the 2010-11 school year.
The newest report comes after the first one, released Nov. 25, found a misuse of funds and other mistakes could cost the district $7.2 million from its general fund balance.
Combined, the two figures threaten to bite into the $10.3 million the administration is trying to save to meet state-mandated reserves.
But Mills believes he can reduce those costs because he says the district has addressed some of them already.
From March to just before Thanksgiving, state auditors made the third floor of the Manatee County School Board’s Administration building their home as they formulated the reports. During the same time, Mills and his team prepared fixes to findings that they knew were coming.
An external audit that accounting firm Mauldin & Jenkins conducted in the spring confirmed many of the problems the state would soon find. The district posted an action plan related to that report on its website.
“After we got that report in the spring, we took what they had to say as a team, had a plan and corrected it,” Mills said. “Some of the findings from the state were redundant to that audit. These are things we’ve already fixed.”
For example, the district has set aside $724,788 in workers’ compensation repayment funds in this year’s budget. Mills expects that fund to be in the black within two years.
Still, Mills said, auditors have an obligation to report things from the year they found them — even if the district had later addressed the concerns.
“The state will still report it as a finding because it happened,” Mills said. “You can’t escape that.”
Mills has instructed his staff — corresponding with the relevant department — to look at the findings and provide evidence to eliminate, decrease or confirm each one.
The school board will discuss corrective actions from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wed. Dec. 18, during a special workshop at the administration building.
Later, Mills will post his action plan to the district’s website for public viewing, based on his staff’s findings.
Then, Mills and Julie Aranibar, the school board chairwoman, plan to travel to Tallahassee to present the plan in person to elected officials and state education leaders.
“It’s important for the community to have confidence we are taking a strong response,” Mills said.
By presenting evidence that the district is taking aggressive action to address the state’s concerns — installing budget controls, streamlining a senior leadership team that has a director of budget for the first time — Mills hopes to persuade the state to permit a deferred payment plan to meet required reserves.
Mills’ financial recovery plan — approved by the Florida Department of Education in June — promised to restore the 3% fund balance by June 30.
But circumstances change.
Mills’ says his goals haven’t.
“My goal going to my work here was to balance the budget, which we have, and restore the fund balance,” Mills said. “That hasn’t changed.”
AT A GLANCE
Some of the findings from the latest report from the state Auditor General’s Office — this one on federal, grant-funded programs — include:
• $1.5 million of questioned costs because the district did not adequately document charges to the Special Education Program for Early Intervention Services.
• $207,900 of questioned costs because district records did not adequately document the feasibility of certain Title I program expenditures.
• $91,600 of questioned costs because money from the Improving Teacher Quality Program was used for purposes contrary to federal regulations.
Contact Josh Siegel at email@example.com.
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