Friday, October 08, 2010

TOP STORY > >PCSSD must follow rules, auditors say

Leader senior staff writer

Members of the state Legis-lative Audit Committee grilled Pulaski County Special School District Board member Gwen Williams and her board mates Friday morning, asking how they could have been so lax as to allow $439,000 worth of district property to be fraudulently purchased and sold.

They also wanted more information about the board members’ understanding of what expenses they could be reimbursed for when traveling to conferences or on other business.

Lawmakers—including Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, who chairs the audit committee, Sen. Randy Laverty, D-Jasper, Sen. Greg Reep, D-Warren and several others—had harsh assessments of the way in which the board members and administrators had conducted the district’s business in recent years, finding a lack of transparency and accountability.

“There’s no excuse for a board member not to know what they can or cannot do,” said Glover.

Glover also took the opportunity to say, “Jacksonville doesn’t want to be part of (PCSSD). We should go on record as (wanting to) allow Jacksonville to have its own district.”

“This is the dag-gumest re-port I’ve ever read,” said Reep, loudly. “This is not a way to run a school district.”

Perry said he questioned the board and administrators getting new iPADs for $25,000 when not all the students have books.

New Superintendent Charles Hopson said the books and the iPADs were not related, that the problem with books was not financial and was being straightened out.

He said the iPad decision was his, that the district had already invested $100,000 in going green and digital before he was hired.

One representative wanted to know if there was a “mechanism for removing school board members if they act improperly.”

Not unless they missed three consecutive meetings, the district was in academic distress or the board member was convicted of a felony, he was told.

Williams, who was there under subpoena, said she missed the previous meeting because she couldn’t get off work at Wal-mart.

“I am the sole provider of my family,” she said, and can’t afford to miss work.

She has already had to make restitution of $469 of unallowable travel expenses, and Friday she had to answer to new findings that she ran up a $1,059 cellular phone bill on the district.

“During the course of our follow-up review, the district provided documentation for cellular phone service…that reflects she is delinquent in reimbursing the district $803 for cellular phone charges from March 1, 2009 to August 30, 2010,” auditor Kay Williams told the committee members.

The audit records show that Gwen Williams had reimbursed $256 and still owed the district $803, but Gwen Williams said she thought she had paid the higher figure and owed on $256.

Kay Williams assured her they had the records to support the audit bureau’s findings.

Gwen Williams said in her 14 years on the board, she had never had gratuities disallowed from reimbursement or told it was improper.

PCSSD requested the state legislative audit bureau to conduct an audit of the district, and in May, the bureau released a report that found that some board members were reimbursed for theater tickets, alcohol, and a Little Rock hotel room for a member who lived in Little Rock and for tips and gratuities paid while on official travel.

The auditors found the district overpaid former Superintendent James Sharpe while buying out his contract and that James Diemer, the maintenance supervisor, bought and stole about $439,000 worth of equipment and supplies without anyone questioning the purchases.

Laverty said, “In all the time I’ve been here I’ve never seen such terrible, egregious abuse.”

Hopson told the committee he welcomed additional audits. “Hold our feet to the fire,” he said. A second audit will be conducted in December, and Hopson promised they would see improvement.

“In hiring Hopson, we’re headed in the right direction to correct a lot of these things,” Gwen Williams said. 

“I’ll be surprised if we see much difference,” Glover said. “I see the superintendent—he’s doing all he possibly can to straighten this out.”

“It’s going to take more than two months to fix 10 to 15 years of problems,” Hopson said.  

Hopson and chief financial officer Anita Farver have guided the board toward actions that he said would make the district’s finances more accountable and transparent.

The district now is on the computerized, online ABSCAN accounting system.

The board last month ap-proved a policy prohibiting blanket purchase orders and Hopson and Farver are hoping the board will adopt a U.S. Bank procurement-card system, where all expenditures can be followed online and where spending limits can be imposed and change online, card by card and user by user.

“None of this would have happened,” if those changes had been in effect all along, Hopson said Friday afternoon.

Hopson said he expected representatives from U.S. Bank to be on hand at next week’s board meeting to explain about the procurement-card system and answer questions.

Also on the agenda will be reorganization of the board and a discussion of hiring new legal counsel for the district.

The firm of Billingsley and Bequette currently has the account, but represented the board in its efforts to disenfranchise the teachers and support staff unions and now union supported candidates have a likely 5-2 majority.

Attending the meeting were board members Williams, Mildred Tatum, Sandra Sawyer, Bill Vasquez, the two new members—Gloria Lawrence and Tom Stuthard—former board members Shana Chapman and Carol Burgett, PACT president Marty 
Nix, Hopson, Farver, most members of the superintendent’s cabinet and Rob McGill, who served as interim superintendent between the termination of Sharpe and the hiring of Hopson.

Chapman told the legislators that the board was often dysfunctional, with members fighting with each other and with special interest groups.

“Unless you’ve been to a PCSSD board meeting, its hard to understand,” she said to laughter. “Hopefully it will change but I can’t say I’m optimistic.”

Vasquez told lawmakers “Your remarks are right on spot. Our checkbook wasn’t even balanced.

Sen. Pritchard, who asked for all the board members to appear, said “It’s time to draw a line in the sand and the past is the past and move on.”

“It’s like a school yard sandbox fight,” he said. “I can only imagine what your board meetings are like.”