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Zorc: School Board ‘voting blind’ on the budget

Photo: District School Board Member Laura Zorc

Indian River County School Board member Laura Zorc thinks the school district budget process should be much more transparent, but she did not get much backing from her fellow members.

Zorc said, “We’re voting blind” on the nearly $280 million budget, of which $120 million is funded by local property taxes.

School Board Member Dale Simchick disagreed with Zorc. “You can’t say blanketly we are voting blindly. It’s you who are uncomfortable.”

Superintendent Mark Rendell gave four workshops on the budget, but Zorc said they “were so rushed there was no time for suggestions.” She noted that department heads did not give reports on how and why money for their departments is to be spent.

Zorc said she met weekly with Assistant Superintendent of Finances Carter Morrison to fill in gaps and learn what she could, but that the meetings were mainly an exercise in frustration.

“If I wanted more detail, Mr. Morrison said I have to ask [school district superintendent] Dr. Rendell if I can ask him that question. Then I would have to wait three weeks to get the information. It’s very unproductive. By the time I get it, I haven’t had time to look at it [before meetings where the budget is discussed or voted on]. It should not be this difficult, especially if we’re elected officials.”

Zorc, who previously worked in forensic accounting, said she “tried to audit” particular line items, such as the category “non-labor discretionary.” That budget heading is a catch-all found in 24 school and 20 department budgets totaling $7.3 million in expenditures that “don’t come before the board,” Zorc said.

In other words, the school district plans to spend more than $7 million in this one category without providing elected officials or the public with any details of where that money is going.

Instead of meeting behind closed doors and depending on Morrison to try get information about how money is being spent, Zorc asked that department heads give presentations to the board next year, which is the way the county vets its budget.

“I think it would be very enlightening,” agreed School Board Chairperson Charles Searcy.

After protesting each department went through a “zero-based-budget process,” examining each line item, Rendell conceded, “We can alter the process in the future so there is more board involvement.”

Zorc also suggested the district could save money on legal fees.

School Board Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta does a good job, she said, but contracting private-sector legal services instead of hiring an in-house lawyer is more expensive. D’Agresta is paid a $264,000-a-year base fee and other school board attorneys get about $160,000, she said.

Simchick and School Board Vice Chairperson Shawn Frost said other school boards claim in-house attorneys do inferior work and it was too late to look into it for this budget. 

Employee travel costs are too high, Zorc said, which got no remarks from fellow board members.

“Each thing I bring up is not going anywhere,” Zorc said. “I was elected to oversee the budget and policy. It’s not fair to the taxpayers or to their kids. There is so much in [the budget] . . . we could be putting into classrooms.”

In the end, Zorc voted along with the other board members to move the budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year forward but said her ‘yea’ vote was provisional. She wants her suggestions for savings discussed in detail before the final budget goes to public hearing and then to the board for a final vote on Sept. 7.