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School district’s auditor position to remain vacant; Budget concerns cited

By Staff | Mar 20, 2008

Faced with budget shortfalls that Superintendent James Browder said are the worst he has seen in 36 years, the Lee County School Board held a workshop Wednesday afternoon to decide whether to hire a new board auditor.

The district’s last board auditor, Julie Nieminski, left the school district and the position is vacant. The board auditor’s job is to carry out internal investigations to assess the district’s performance and ensure that operations are running efficiently.

At the workshop, school board members and the superintendent agreed that while an auditor is something the district needs, the position is not “essential” nor does it directly impact the education of students.

“The board auditor position has a price tag of $200,000,” said Jeanne Dozier, the school board chair. “It equates to four teachers and eight paraprofessionals.”

While it is no secret that the economy has been in a tailspin, it is now being projected by the district that hundreds of district jobs are at risk of being cut because of budget reductions.

“We are faced with a $17 million reduction. Given the circumstances and seriousness of what we are going to deal with, we should consider waiting until we receive the final budget,” said Browder.

While the district expected a reduction at or below $17 million, it may now decide to put on hold any intentions of hiring a new board auditor. While some in the district may be against such a decision because they say it decreases the amount of internal accountability, a majority of the board members said that in her tenure Nieminski had not discovered anything significant indicating that there was mismanagement.

In the meantime, Browder explained, if the district requires an audit, it can go to the district’s internal auditor or set aside money to hire an outside firm. If the situation is very serious, the board can also go to Florida’s Auditor General — an independent organization that provides audits for the Florida Legislature and other public entities throughout the state.

For now, the board will wait for the final budget to arrive from the state before it decides on the auditor position. The state budget could be available May 4 or later depending on how long the legislative sessions continue.

“I would suggest that the board wait until after the tentative budget is approved, then we can go through the process of prioritizing and sort it all out,” said Browder.

Once the budget arrives from the state, the district will have the task of deciding what programs may be under the axe such as music or the arts, or in a worst case scenario, academic programs. It will have to make any announcements about eliminating positions to administrators throughout the county by May 1.

Of course, this year is not the only year that the district will be affected by budget reductions. It was revealed Wednesday in the board’s discussion that this year’s cuts will be much less than those in 2009 to 2010 school year because of the lower tax roll due to Amendment 1.

The district has already tried cutting some costs that may bring in more revenue, such as trimming the $65 given to students for classroom materials by $10, and it is likely that field trips and extracurricular trips will also be canceled.

But, as much as the district tries to make cuts to satisfy budget reductions, it cannot seriously begin the prioritizing process until it receives budget notification from the state.

“We can’t make budget decisions on what we think might occur,” Browder said.

He explained to the school board that the district has received some of its dollars from the investment pool account, which was frozen last year after some of the account was deemed subprime, although the money that has been received is not nearly as much as would be needed to offset budget reductions.

“Some of the funds from Fund B have been moved into Fund A and some dollars have gone through,” said Browder. “You’ll have an opportunity to look at our proposal and how to spend the money locally.”

There has been some speculation that the cuts this year will not be as bad as next school year because legislators are trying to minimize cuts for the upcoming elections.

Boardmember Steven Teuber said the district will also be responsible for the Required Local Effort tax after the state decided to delete the instructional and transportation sections and rolled them to the district.

As a result, he said, $8 million had to be used for instructional materials. This year, since the new reading program was passed, the district will be responsible for an extra $2 million worth of instructional materials.

Currently, a new property tax cut plan proposed by the state could cut tax bills by 25 percent, but would eliminate the $9.6 billion collected to finance public schools through the Required Local Effort. In order to protect schools from being affected by further tax cuts, there are other proposals on the table that could raise or eliminate sales tax.

“The state needs to step back and look at the entire tax structure,” said Dozier.