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Audit seeks efficiency in schools

State auditors want to know whether the Hernando County School District is being run effectively and efficiently.

To that end, they will spend the next seven months evaluating district finance and management procedures to see how they stack up against standards established by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

The agency, which reports to the Florida Legislature, will release its findings and recommendations in June. The School Board will then have 90 days to decide whether to implement the action plan and pursue a state Seal of Best Financial Management award. If it receives the award and maintains the standards, it might gain a waiver of its next scheduled review, five years from now.

"This is a way, really, to both highlight what the district is doing well and point out ways where they can save money and be more efficient," OPPAGA senior legislative analyst Marti Harkness said. "These are the best practices. We don't expect to come in and see the district using the best practices."

The average is 64 percent, Harkness said. Only one district, Manatee County, has achieved 100 percent of the best practices.

Hernando is one of 13 school districts to be reviewed during the 2002-03 fiscal year under the state Sharpening the Pencil Act, Harkness said. Lawmakers adopted the act in 2001 to help improve school district management.

Local officials are getting ready for the onslaught, which will include reams of paperwork and analysis. The first step comes Thursday and Friday, when OPPAGA representatives will explain the process and tell district administrators what to look for while preparing a 112-page self-assessment.

"It saves a lot of time in the long run, because the expectations are clearly defined," said Heather Martin, director of the Hernando district's planning and accountability division.

The district will begin its self-assessment Dec. 2, Martin said. The deadline to submit it to Tallahassee is Jan. 31.

"Then we'll do our review," Harkness said.

OPPAGA experts will verify the self-assessment and also will have a public forum so residents can identify specific concerns. Residents also may submit comments by calling 1-800-877-3470 or sending e-mail through the agency Web site:

The OPPAGA audit differs from other state audits in that it looks at more than whether the district finances were properly accounted for and whether the district followed state finance laws. Rather, the auditors will focus on issues such as whether the district explores cost-saving opportunities, reviews its operations to improve effectiveness, links planning and budgeting to School Board priorities and related matters.

The state has adopted 10 best financial management practice areas for schools: management structures, performance accountability standards, educational service delivery, administrative and instructional technology, personnel systems and benefits, facilities construction, facilities maintenance, transportation, food service operations and cost control systems.

Some of its recommendations to other districts have been to reduce the number of assistant principals (Brevard County), raise selected meal prices (Manatee County), increase room rental fees (Lee County) and strengthen accountability for lost and damaged books (Lake County).

"It made us focus on some standards, which I'm not sure we had," Manatee County School Board member Walter Miller said.

Accomplishing all the best practices had a singular ultimate benefit, Manatee superintendent Dan Nolan said.

"The very bottom line is, it allowed us to pass a sales tax referendum with 62 percent of the vote," Nolan said, noting that the district has seven new schools in the pipeline. "We were the first district in the state to accomplish all they asked of us. You can't argue with that."

Hillsborough County deputy superintendent Beth Shields said OPPAGA had helped that district find savings and improve its management. The administration reorganized this month because of an OPPAGA recommendation and has begun to set specific objectives for operational departments, something it had not done previously.

"I would imagine in doing that we may find some ways to improve our cost efficiency and actually our overall efficiency," Shields said. "Overall, it was a good process."

If there is a complaint, Miller said, it would be that OPPAGA makes statements about how much money can be saved by certain actions, but then it does not make it clear whether the saved money can be used for items such as teacher pay or food service. That can mislead the public, he said.

Another concern is sustaining the improvements.

"You can keep it up, but you can't do it without the appropriate number of personnel," Nolan said. "Right now, we're in a giant squeeze play. . . . It's going to be hard for smaller districts to do. Even with our staff, it was a struggle to do it."

Hernando board members said they were not familiar with all that an OPPAGA audit entails. But they hoped for the best.

"It's going to be burdensome and stressful while the audit is going on," board member Robert Wiggins said. "Hopefully, when it's all said and done . . . they'll come up with ideas to improve efficiencies, and maybe some of them will be things we can do."

Board member Gail David liked that the School Board, and not the administration, is accountable under state law for adopting and achieving the standards. She noted that the district staff received a similar audit, for which the district paid thousands in the mid 1990s, with "total hostility."

"I would welcome this to open up efficiency," David said of the state-funded OPPAGA review.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to