Sparta schools business administrator resigns

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:35

    Budget surplus controversy cited as reason Sparta — School district business administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels has resigned from his position, effective immediately. His resignation was approved by a 7 to 2 vote of the board of education at their meeting last Thursday night and Ceruvels is not expected to return to his office. However, as per the terms of his contract, Ceurvels gave the district 180 days notice and will receive a paid leave of absence until March, 2012. Ceurvels employment with the district began in January, 2007 when he was hired as an interim business administrator to replace Ron Wolfe, who retired at the end of 2006. He was officially offered the business administrator’s position in 2008. Controversy has surrounded Ceurvels since the summer of 2010, when he inadvertently released numerous district vendors’ social security numbers via a routine open records request from a citizen. The citizen went public with the error, contacting television and print news outlets, causing embarrassment to the district and prompting some citizens to call for Ceurvels’ resignation a year ago. Surplus controversy The latest and most controversial issue surrounding Ceurvels was the announcement last June that the district had an unexpected budget surplus of over $3 million. The news came as a shock to the public, many of whom had struggled with the loss of courtesy busing and fees for sports and extracurricular activities imposed last year due to budget cuts. The surplus also came as a surprise to board members and Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton, who claim they asked Ceurvels each month of last year to report what kind of surplus was trending and said were told there was none and could not know how much the total obligation for unemployment would be until the third quarter. Prior to the election last April, Ceurvels told the board and the public to expect a total obligation of half the amount budgeted for unemployment, or around $600,000. It is still unclear as to how the $3 million surplus accumulated undetected or unreported. At their June meeting, the board voted to spend $1.5 million on technology upgrades, and the remainder of the surplus was rolled into the 2012/13 budget. However, questions concerning the unexpected funds led to speculation and finger-pointing. In July, Ceurvels was set to resign over the surplus and had even cleared out his office. But at the last minute, changed his mind and issued an email to board members saying he refused to take the fall for the surprise surplus, and accused Morton and former board president Jennifer Dericks of knowing about the surplus all along. Ceurvels said Morton opted to close Mohawk Avenue School as a punishment to the public for voting down the budget in 2010, even after he advised him there were enough funds to keep it open. The email was leaked to the public and went viral, igniting public furor and fueling anti-Morton sentiment among his long-time adversaries. Some of the same people who called for Ceurvels’ resignation a year ago suddenly stood behind him and called for Morton’s resignation instead. Other citizens, fed up with all the controversy, called for both administrators’ resignations in order for the district to make a clean start and put an end to all the squabbling and accusations. Did they know? Morton and Dericks categorically denied Ceurvels’ claims saying they were unaware of an accumulating surplus. Both have also been adamant that they would never put the district, especially the students, through the hardships of all the budget cuts if they did not believe it was the only choice available at the time. Morton and Dericks also said the reason Mohawk Avenue School was closed was the reduction in staff that was necessary to meet the available salary constraints set by Ceurvels when preparing the budget. Last week, all board members were in favor of accepting Ceurvels’ resignation except Frank Favichia and Richard Bladek. Favichia said he had concerns about the cost associated with hiring an interim business administrator to replace Ceurvels and wondered why they couldn’t keep him on until the end of the year. Favichia also said he thought the board was going to get answers regarding the surplus from a forensic audit before they made any decisions, but was reminded by the board that Ceurvels initiated the separation and made the decision to resign. During public participation, James Kaufman asked if there was a gag order in place as a part of the board’s agreement with Ceurvels. Board president Keith Smith said he could not comment on that. It would not be an uncommon attachment to a separation agreement under a union employee contract. A gag order can be requested by either side and is intended to prevent the parties involved from speaking publicly about one another after the separation. In some cases, especially when an employee is fired, separation agreements can be highly contentious and become volatile and blown out of proportion when played out in public. In other cases, the departing employee may request the gag order to prevent the former employer from discussing the reasons for the separation with a prospective employer. In Sparta’s case, Ceurvels was not fired by the district, but opted to resign and requested the separation agreement. Ceurvels has told sources that he intends to seek another interim business administrator position. Ceurvels was a tenured employee and, as such, could not be fired. However, each year the board was required by the state to take a 'pro forma’ vote to approve the terms of his contract. His salary of $172,640 had been frozen for two years. Forensic audit firm chosen The board was set to vote last Thursday on the auditing firm of Jump, Scutellano, and Co. LLP as the winning bidder to conduct the forensic audit of the district budget for $4,450.00. However, several board members questioned choosing this firm, saying even though all firms responded to the same bid specifications, this firm came in far lower than the other three bids received. Some were concerned the low cost could equate to less quality of service, even though this firm trains all the state’s business administrators and is also used to conduct audits for the state. Favichia said after reviewing the proposals from all the bidders, he was most impressed with the firm of Nisivoccia and Co. LLP, CPAs, who are the district’s regular auditors and perform the yearly audit every summer. Their bid for the forensic audit is $20,000. However, at the July meeting when the forensic audit was discussed, Favichia was adamant that a firm other than the district’s regular auditors should be used to avoid even the hint of a conflict of interest. Kevin Pollison said his preference had always been Nisivoccia but, along with other board members, feared what the public perception might be if the board used their regular auditor. Most board members agreed that the board’s regular auditors have the best knowledge of all the aspects of the budget, how it is constructed historically, and will be able to hit the ground running in terms of conducting their investigation. The board voted unanimously to hire Nisivoccia to conduct the forensic audit. The firm has recently completed the district’s regular yearly audit and those findings will be reported to the public soon. There was no word as to when the forensic audit will actually begin or when it is projected to be completed.