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February 12, 2004

Rep. Wiles proposes changes for FSDB

From: St. Augustine Record, FL - Feb 12, 2004

Staff Writer

State Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, says he will file a bill in the Legislature this year aimed at remedying problems uncovered in a 2002 audit of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The proposed bill is in response to questions raised in the audit and a review by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. Wiles will present his proposal to the committee, which he said he has been working with, Monday in Tallahassee.

"This is designed to deal with the specific issues that the Auditor General brought out," Wiles said.

When filed, the bill will be co-sponsored by Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville. Davis also represents a part of St. Johns County and the school is in his district.

Monday's committee meeting is at 11:30 a.m. in Room 309 in the Florida Senate wing of the state Capitol building.

The audit covers the period from July 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2001, and selected transactions through Aug. 31, 2002.

The audit listed 13 findings in which it said the school had violated state law. FSDB officials have disputed some of the findings and accepted others.

In December, state Auditor General William Monroe outlined the audit for the committee.

Monday, it will be the school's turn to give its views to the committee.

Wiles said the committee may want minor changes in his proposal, but he intends to file the key points of his proposal in a bill for the 2004 Legislature. It convenes March 2.

"These changes are necessary to maintain confidence in the actions of (the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind's) trustees and improve the ability of the school to continue to be a leader in educating students with special needs," Wiles said.

Davis said the changes will allow the school to provide quality education and come in compliance with the law.

But Mary Jane Dillon, chairwoman of the school's Board of Trustees, said much of the proposal is already law.

A key point of the proposal is to resolve differences between the school, St. Augustine city government and residents adjacent to the North City school. The proposal would resolve the school expansion issue by including it in the law that covers university campus master plans and development agreements between state universities and local governments, Wiles said.

"We think that will work to help the city and the school resolve both current and future differences," Wiles said.

The proposal would establish the school as a state agency under the Department of Education, and it would clarify the legal status of the school, he said.

Dillon said the school status as a state agency under the Department of Education is clear in two separate statutes.

The proposal would also require the Department of Education to review and approve the school's annual budget requests, and it would give the Department of Education Inspector General's office the authority to conduct reviews of the school.

Dillon said the school's budget is included with the department's budget, and she assumed the Inspector General already had the authority that had been proposed.

Finally, the proposal would increase the frequency of audits by the Auditor General from once every two years to annually. Dillon said that is within the Auditor General's purview.

The means for a resolution of the school's proposal to expand into the nearby Nelmar Terrace neighborhood in North City is the only new point in the proposed bill, and the trustees haven't given it consideration, Dillon said.

"Most of it's already there," she said.

Wiles said Dillon has yet to see the specifics of the proposal, but it is not duplicative.

In the proposal, Wiles said he and the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee have dissected the audit, determined problems with statutory law and corrected them, he said.

The audit raised various questions about what agency the school is supposed to report to, and whether it is under the authority of the governor or state Board of Education, he said.

Wiles responded to Dillon's criticism that the proposed bill made little change to existing law.

"If they already do virtually everything, then they shouldn't have a problem with the bill," he said.

© The St. Augustine Record