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East County Wednesday, May. 1, 2013 4 years ago

Transition Team backs Mills, worries about district's finances

by: Josh Siegel Staff Writer

EAST COUNTY — The 13 education leaders in town to create an economic recovery plan for Manatee County Schools came away impressed with the decision-making of the district’s new leader but concerned about its finances.

The “transition team,” experts sound in business and finance, spent April 21 to April 26 poring over hundreds of documents and interviewing 30 to 35 people — inside and outside the district.

Some of those interviewed included community members, the school board, the citizens advisory group, CPA Byron Shinn, Internal Audit Committee Chairwoman Bobbie Windham and technology expert Richard Green.

The experts came — after The Florida Department of Education gave the Florida Association of District Superintendents a $25,000 grant to bring them here — to develop an economic recovery plan to solve the district’s organizational issues that led to a 2011-12 $3.4 million budget deficit.

The team voiced support for the district’s decision to eliminate 188 staff positions, most to be absorbed through attrition, for the 2013-2014 school year, but that move will only save money — an estimated
$11 million — in future years.

They also backed Manatee County Superintendent Rick Mills’ decision to implement cost-saving measures that included a freeze on hiring and the elimination of overtime and overnight travel.

But more spending cuts, anything not absolutely necessary to finish the year, may be required.

State law requires a 3% reserve — or  $10 million for Manatee County.

The state gave Manatee County an exception and approved a 2.2% reserve for this fiscal year.

But, the team confirmed what Mills already knows; the school district is struggling to find the $6.7 million — 2.2% — needed in reserves.

“It does not look like the money will be there this year,” said Bill Vogel, the leader of the transition team who briefly served as Manatee’s interim superintendent earlier this year.

The end of the budget year is June 30.

In the coming weeks, the district must write to the state Department of Education commissioner explaining why it won’t meet its reserves for the third consecutive year.

Don Griesheimer, associate executive director of the Florida Association of School Superintendents and one of the transition team members, described a week of long days of inspecting district data that went late into the night.

He acknowledged this year as a “toughy,” but said Mills has set the district on track to move past it.

“We’ve been fooled once or twice with superintendents in Manatee County, but Mills is the real deal,” Griesheimer said. “He’s a real change leader. His primary goal is to stabilize the district and he’s been very visible about the problems he walked into.”

The team will have its report written by June 1.

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