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Schools and Education School Board Seeks Greater Oversight in Approving Budget

BRADENTON -- At Monday evening's emergency meeting for a second hearing of their budget for the current school year, the board went over a corrective action list of items that seek to help close the district's $2.2 million deficit. A sticking point was the board's deliberation of an existing policy that allowed the superintendent to approve expenditures less than $50,000 without approval from the board, which one board member claimed was sometimes used to make hires.

As interim superintendent Bob Gagnon was going through the various points in the list, which was not immediately available to the public at the time of the meeting, board member Julie Aranibar was the one to bring up the subject of the $50,000 expenditure policy. She suggested that the policy be suspended until "we know where we are with our numbers after the auditing process."
Mr. Gagnon agreed that doing so would be fiscally responsible, but argued that such a policy is needed to approve contracts that help the flow of day-to-day incoming items to schools that students and teachers are constantly waiting on. "It's very much an operational issue," he said.

Ms. Aranibar elaborated further, saying that it was a concern due to the financial emergency of the district. She said that there has never been a definition of what exactly the rule is or a review of how much had been spent, though she said that she'd asked to see the figures on numerous occasions. Board attorney John Bowen interjected, "It's in our fiscal year (report)," to which Ms. Aranibar replied that it was not, and that in discussions with the previous superintendent, Dr. McGonegal had said that the rule was a transaction and didn't specify further. "Until I get the results of (the upcoming forensic audit), I'm not going to have assurance as to what we really did (with the $50,000 rule), so that's a concern that I have.''

Board member Karen Carpenter echoed her colleague's sentiments, saying, "I think we really need to micro-manage, and I'm sorry to say that." Board member Robert Gause also spoke up, saying that if any expenditures "are used that dip into the corrective action plan...we should probably be allowed to weigh in on it."

Mr. Bowen advised them that legally, the board did not have authority to suspend such a rule. Ms. Aranibar retorted that the primary statutory responsibility the board has is to not operate within a deficit, "so I do think that this is a prudent thing to address. I'm not in support of allowing it to go on." The board attorney said that he was not arguing against the wisdom of changing the process of approving contracts; just that the board follow the requirements of the law.

During a public comment that was allowed during the discussion of the corrective action plan, Dave "Watchdog" Miner, with a fresh copy of the list in hand, admonished the board for not making it available to the public prior to the meeting: "If there's a time that you ought to be open and candid in providing information to the public about what you're doing, it certainly is now, and that isn't what is being done. If you're going to talk about finances, provide it to the public ... if you don't do that, it's just talk." Ms. Carpenter apologized for the board not having the list readily available to the public, essentially saying that time had not been on the board's side in preparing the list for the emergency meeting.

In response to the other board members' concerns, Mr. Gagnon said that what the board needed to do is have more frequent updating of their budget and "have more eyes on the budget as we move forward." 

When asked by Ms. Aranibar, school board CFO Michael Boyer confirmed that he had a ledger account of all the expenditures that were approved by the superintendent under $50,000 without board approval. Pushing for access to the information, Ms. Aranibar said, "I need assurance ... that this is not an account that is used to hire people that are paid under $50,000 and they show up somewhere in the budget." 

Echoing earlier remarks from board member Barbara Harvey, board chair Henry Kinnan said, "I don't think any of us want to micromanage the superintendent - it's your job, we're the board of directors, not the manager, but on the same token we want to be sure that we're all on the same page on this." 

Mr. Gagnon concluded the discussion by saying that he would parlay with Mr. Boyer about delivering a report of the unreported expenditures under $50,000 on perhaps a monthly basis.   

After discussing all items on the corrective action list, the board voted 5-0 on their revised 2012-2013 budget. 


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