State not interested in an audit of BOE

| 15 Feb 2012 | 08:51

    Board will seek private audit as questions and finger-pointing persist Sparta — The state is not interested in investigating the Sparta schools’ budget via a forensic audit, County Business Administrator Neil Cramer said last week. In an email to Sparta’s Business Administrator, Dr. Warren Ceurvels, Cramer said the state’s office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance would not get involved unless there is evidence of fraudulent activity, such as if funds are missing or there is an inexplicable deficit. In Sparta’s case the situation is the opposite. No funds are missing and there are actually more coins in the coffer than previously thought. The state is not concerned about extra money, only missing money. This was the outcome Sparta’s board attorney Rod Hara advised the board to expect when he discussed the matter at last month’s board meeting. But plenty of people in town are concerned about the unexpected discovery of around $3.2 million in surplus funds in June. The news created a cloud of confusion and questions from Board of Education members, and a storm of controversy among some members of the public who believe they were intentionally hoodwinked into thinking there were less funds than there actually were, resulting in the closing of Mohawk Ave. School and courtesy busing that may have been needlessly cut. However, that depends on who is telling the story in a war of words pitting one administrator against another. Ceurvels and Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton each say the other is at fault for either incompetence or hoodwinking. Ceurvels is upset that Morton discussed his performance publicly in an interview with this newspaper and Ceurvels claims Morton knew about the surplus. Morton is miffed Ceurvels released an email about him to board members, some of whom leaked it to the public and it went viral all over town. He claims Ceurvels did not inform him of a growing surplus, even after he asked about it each month. And so it goes. Some on the board and in the public are taking sides in the finger-pointing, while others want to throw in the towel and blame both Morton and Ceurvels, saying both should resign over the surplus funds. Each maintains he did nothing wrong and each is sticking to his story. But both Morton and Ceurvels say the brouhaha over extra money, rather than insufficient money, is overblown and they agree it’s surprising few have focused on the benefits the surplus will have for the district. They referred to benefits such as the much needed technology upgrades, the elimination of activity fees for student athletes and artists, the staggering of the middle school and high school start times, and the possibility to once again open Mohawk Avenue School for district needs like pre-school, kindergarten, or additional special education space. Both also agree the situation is being used as fodder by old foes of Morton and that they appear to be fanning the flames of public furor. But as for now, that’s where the agreement between the two regarding the surplus ends. Ceurvels maintains he submits monthly financial reports to all nine board members in the packets they receive before each meeting. He said during the last year no one ever questioned the numbers or raised concerns. Board vice president Dorothy La Beau said, “But what the board receives each month does not clearly show what kind of surplus may or may not be trending.” La Beau said she and other board members asked Ceurvels multiple times if there was any kind of surplus from month to month and she said they were either told there was not, or they were told they would not know what remained unused from the unemployment compensation account until the third quarter of the fiscal year. It was announced publicly last February that number would be around $600,000. Board president Keith Smith concurred with La Beau’s statement, but said he didn’t want to comment further at this time. But the surplus that was reported at around $3.2 million in June, prompting some members of the public to demand it be given back to the taxpayers, is no longer $3.2 million. $1.5 million was spent at the June BOE meeting on technology infrastructure upgrades and other repairs and capital expenses, as it was part of the 2010-2011 budget and had to be spent before the fiscal year ended on June 30. What remains is around $1.9 million, according to Ceurvels. The majority of that must be rolled into the 2012 - 2013 budget, which will leave around $600,000 in surplus. Ceurvels said the board will look for a private firm to conduct the forensic audit and requests for proposals went out last week, with the requested return date of Aug. 26. The board may be able to make a decision at their Aug. 29 meeting, if sufficient proposals are received. Ceurvels also said the district’s regular yearly audit that takes place each summer has already begun. All involved say they welcome the more detailed forensic audit, including Morton and Ceurvels, saying they are confident it will prove no wrong doing occurred in terms of the surplus. What a forensic audit will not prove is who said what to whom and when it was said. For now, it appears that will remain the sticking point.