The public sounds off on budget surplus BOE opts for forensic audit of 2010-2011 budget

| 15 Feb 2012 | 08:35

    SPARTA — Tempers flared, fingers pointed, and the dander was definitely up at the board of education meeting Monday night, as a crowd of at least 200 turned out in the wake of recent news of a surprise $3 million school budget surplus. Some came seeking answers, others came to speak their minds, still others came to observe what they expected would be a lynching. By the time the meeting ended at 1 a.m., there had been plenty of verbal thrashings of the board, the superintendent, and the business administrator. There were no public reprimands from the board for the superintendent or business administrator, but they decided to request a forensic audit from the state Department of Education. Board attorney Rod Hara was in attendance and after the meeting the board went into a closed session until 4 a.m., after which no public action was taken. Board suspends policy to accommodate public Board president Keith Smith said the crowd was the largest he’d seen in five or six years. He said he knew citizens wanted to be heard and that because of the situation, they should have the opportunity to speak without limitations. Smith made a motion to suspend a portion of the board’s public participation policy for the evening, allowing citizens to speak longer than three minutes. The motion carried unanimously. The public speaks out The pervading sentiment among the public appears to be that someone must be held accountable for the unexpected surplus and the cutting of services and personnel when funds were actually available. John Yanezzelli asked the board, “What is the game plan, where does the buck stop? You people are doing a lot of listening but when will there be action?” George Marchant said he believes the board owes the taxpayers $3 million. He said if it is not returned to the people he predicts the budget will fail for the next ten years. Lenore DiStefano thanked the board for their work, saying they are not responsible for preparing the budget, but Ceurvels is responsible for preparing the budget. She said this was “strike two” for Ceurvels and called for him to resign. Later she called for both Morton and Ceurvels to resign for the district to heal. Deirdre Mastandrea called for both Ceurvels and Morton to resign, saying, “We’ll never get another budget passed as long as these two administrators are here.” She said she hoped they would “do the right thing for the district and leave.” In spite of calling for Ceurvels’ resignation a year ago after his inadvertent release of district vendors’ social security numbers through a citizen’s open records request, now old foes of Morton are lining up behind Ceurvels with their sights set on finally snagging the bigger fish. Melva Cummings read a statement citing her request that Ceurvels resign last year, but faulted Morton for not investigating him and accused the board of smirking at her. Phil Serrani wants his portion of the $3 million back, saying, “I believe Warren.” He said Morton should be suspended without pay and all but the three new board members should resign. Karen Scott read excerpts from board policy regarding the superintendent’s responsibilities in terms of the district budget. She said she supports Ceurvels and doesn’t think he should be thrown under the bus. Paul Johnson faulted Morton for speaking against Ceurvels in the press, saying Ceurvels could have a lawsuit. At least one citizen looked on the bright side of the matter. Christine Thomas said, “If this budget surplus is because of conservative planning and doing what the state requires them to do, then isn’t this a good thing?” She said a surplus is better than a deficit and that Sparta is in better shape than many districts now. Thomas said, “I’m really frustrated that now we’re going back to the fighting like before and the only ones getting hurt are the kids.” Morton said the district is actually poised to move forward in many ways because of the surplus. He said they could have full day kindergarten in Mohawk Avenue School, further reduce class sizes in the schools, adding “many positive things could come from this.” The forensic audit Board member Scott Turner said the board should ask for a state auditor from the Department of Education to look at the budget, in the interest of full transparency. He said then the board would be able to see if something was done wrong or carelessly. Attorney Rod Hara explained that the state doesn’t usually get involved unless there is a serious over expenditure of funds. He suggested they also put out a request for proposals from other auditors as well, in case the state does not provide one. Hara said the independent audit would be in addition to the district’s regular yearly audit which is scheduled every summer. Frank Favichia said he wants an audit that goes back to the high school renovation project, but the board opted to focus only on the operations budget for 2010-2011 at this time. Video-taping meetings The board voted to consider video-taping meetings. The practice of audio-taping meetings was suspended two years ago at the advice of Rod Hara due to numerous issues and legal matters regarding open records requests for copies of the tapes. The law does not require the audio taping of board of education meetings and says the written minutes are the official record of the meetings. Hara said the board must carefully consider a new policy, if it chooses to create one, because anything on an audio or video tape is preserved. He cited examples from his practice where completely innocent statements were used out of context and cited in future litigation. He also said the board would have to get releases from all citizens who are video-taped at meetings and even if the tapes are available on the website, they are public records subject to records requests. Favichia said SECTV volunteered to tape meetings at no cost. Rich Bladek said it would be better for the board’s transparency if it put its meetings on video tape. The board voted to move the matter to the Operations Committee to draft a proposed policy and bring it to the board’s August meeting. If approved, the board could then have a first reading of the policy, with a second reading and vote in September. The soonest meetings could be video-taped would be in October. The background When news of the unexpected surplus broke at the June BOE meeting, board members and Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton said they first learned of it at their Operations Committee meeting that week. Most eyes were immediately on Business Administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels, whose job is to report the district’s financial status to the board each month and to keep track of and report unexpended funds throughout the fiscal year. Morton said he was not told such a surplus was accruing and said he and the board relied on information from Ceurvels to make financial decisions. Ceurvels had agreed to resign over the matter, but changed his mind last week, saying he believes he is being made a “scapegoat for the decisions of others.” Ceurvels claims Morton knew of the surplus and in an email to the board, which was leaked to the public, Ceurvels said Morton made the decision to close Mohawk Avenue School and cut courtesy busing against his advice that funds were available for these. Morton claims this is untrue, but in the fallout most eyes are on Morton as the one in charge of the district and the one ultimately responsible for all district matters. But all the sound and fury from the public may signify nothing unless one or both administrators choose to leave of their own accord. Ceurvels has tenure and Morton has a solid contract for four more years. Both believe they did nothing wrong and know the legal process to find just cause for their removal is costly and time consuming. So for the time being, both are digging in.