Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TOP STORY > >PCSSD turmoil continues

Leader senior staff writer

Despite loud, unintelligible voices leaking from an executive session discussing Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Charles Hopson’s contract at the end of Monday night’s special board meeting, the board emerged, taking no action. His job apparently is safe for now.

New school board member Gloria Lawrence had sent harsh e-mails to the superintendent and at least some board members, questioning Hopson’s morals and making remarks some construed as having racial overtones.

She said later she had overreacted to the recent legislative-audit findings that included concerns over the superintendent’s moving expenses.

She said she made her comments before reading the audit or the superintendent’s contract.

“His job is not in jeopardy,” she said after the board meeting. “I have confidence in his leadership. He’s taking the district in the right direction.”

She said a conversation with former school board member Danny Gililland had assuaged her worries and helped her understand the situation more fully.

School Board president Bill Vasquez was quoted in a published report saying that Hopson’s job wasn’t in jeopardy. Some of the board members, particularly those elected with union help, seem antagonistic toward the superintendent and his cabinet.

Of Lawrence’s e-mails and the perceived antagonism by some, Hopson said, “I lead based on my conviction and desire for systemic equity.” He refused to speculate or comment on actions of those who some believe are trying to drive him off or fire him.

For three hours, Monday night, Vasquez led the board through many of the critical legislative audit findings, either allowing the board to satisfy itself that remedies had been taken or were being taken or else making and accepting motions and board action ordering corrective measures, sometimes requiring cabinet members to gather information and report back to the board.

Both Vasquez and Hopson said they had talked with state Education Department and Legislative Audit officials to determine what needed to be done to avoid the district being placed on fiscal distress, which would put it under the control of the Education Department. If the district were in fiscal distress again—like it was between 2005 and 2007--the Education Department could replace the superintendent, dismiss the board, or both. Many of the concerns of the auditors and the Education Department stemmed from lack of proper management, safeguards and controls, Vasquez told board members.

Of the matters of concern to the auditor concerning Hopson’s relocation expenses, “Most are IRS or Department of Revenue issues,” Vasquez summed up, “and whether or not his contract violated Arkansas code. That’s the overall context.”

Vasquez said letters from the Education Department regarding policy changes and financial oversight were complimentary of the job being done by Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver.

“We were cited for continuing deficiencies, but headed in the right direction,” Vasquez said. “The tone was we’re still not doing stuff great and (the joint legislative audit committee) is less and less tolerant of our actions as a board. We need to show that we will do the right thing to educate the children and stop wasting resources.”

Vasquez kept the meeting moving forward, wielding his authority and calling variously on Hopson, Farver, information technology director Derek Brown and others to answer or explain as necessary.

At the end of the meeting, Vasquez asked for the minutes to be transcribed and sent to the legislative auditors in an effort to show that the board was taking their concerns seriously.

Among the identified problems already rectified were elimination of blanket purchase orders and prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of a man who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of school property.

The board has approved new policy regarding travel by school employees and board members.

Yet to be resolved: the district apparently paid some new employees before they started the job. In at least one instance, the employee worked over the Internet from another state, stopping the district from making a bad $1.1 million purchase. A problem was identified with the way human resources put new hires on the books between pay periods, and Paul Brewer was ordered to fix that.

The board also discussed other issues of concern to the auditors, including:

DREAM, an after-school program vendor, still owes the county $21,000, auditors pointed out. PCSSD attorney Jay Bequette testified that DREAM is current on the monthly repayment schedule worked out mutually.

The district left $4 million in desegregation funds unspent. Farver explained that the district budgeted the $16 million in desegregation funds it was appropriated, but the district was sent another $4 million. She said new state ABSCAM coding would help the district keep track of that money—and all the rest—in the future.

“If we get that money again, will we be able to track it?” asked Vasquez.

“To the penny, yes,” Farver said.

Hopson and his staff bought $760,000 worth of used school buses without competitive bidding or even informing the board. “It was an emergency,” said Hopson, and the buses were bought legally through state procurement at a very good price.

The board set a $25,000 limit to the superintendent’s authority to make an emergency purchase without board approval.

Vasquez said the emergency could have been prevented if the superintendent hadn’t changed the school day so that high school and elementary school started at about the same time.

The board also asked that transportation manager Brad Montgomery make a full report on the condition and use of the district’s buses at the January meeting.

District property, including computers, sometimes “walks out of the warehouse.” Vasquez asked that an automated method of monthly inventory be implemented. Brown said it would be a large and involved task, requiring millions in expenditures, but that he would begin by inventorying the warehouse.

“We are building that capacity for the future,” said Hopson.

Auditors pointed out that board members acquire much more than the minimum annual training state requirement, at some cost to the district. The board implemented a new policy to cancel all out-of-district travel.

Vasquez pointed out the dilemma of board members being praised by the Association of School Boards for getting extra training hours and criticized by the legislative audit for accruing those same hours.

Auditors raised concerns about possible duplication of professional-development contracts, but Hopson explained that all three such contracts address different areas of development.