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State auditors, nick school district

State auditors released last week audit results they found a year ago while pouring over the Sunnyside School District books.

In the audit there are two findings: that the school district's internal controls over expenditures were inadequate to ensure appropriate and allowable use of public funds and that the district lacked adequate controls when it comes to enrollment reporting.

The audit period covers the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years.

Auditors cite four instances to back up the first finding regarding the allowable use of public funds.

First, they say the district paid $13,050 for travel, meal and conference costs that weren't supported by documentation, which would have justified the expenditure. Auditors claim that the costs include $12,365 in catering expenses but that the district didn't have a complete list of who attended. Auditors also say $442 was paid for catering at a recognition event that did not appear to serve a public purpose.

That particular event was a PRIDE High School graduation, says Sunnyside School District Business Manager Angela Watts.

"It was for our kids, so we feel it was a good expenditure for a very good purpose," said Watts. She said on the expense form the word "meal" was excluded.

Of the catering event that cost $12,365, out of a stack of paperwork backing up the expense, a school district food form was not included.

The meal was served at a Migrant Student Data and Recruitment statewide conference in August 2006, Watts said.

Auditors also say there wasn't a complete list of who attended the conference. Watts said the food form would have shown auditors a projection of how many meals the district expected to serve at the conference. What the district did have was a list of names of attendees once they came to the conference, but auditors needed the food form.

"There wasn't a misuse of funds," Watts said of the MSDR conference. "We did have a legitimate conference, based on legitimate use and criteria."

Auditors also found fault with a school district employee being given $200 in restaurant gift certificates as "honoraria," saying the district did not have a bonus or incentive award policy.

Watts said the gift certificates were given to an employee that went above and beyond the call of duty when acting as a labor management mediator during union negotiations. "They facilitated discussions during labor negotiations."

The school district's community relations coordinator, Curtis Campbell, said, "If we were paying her on an hourly basis for that, it would have been much, much more."

Despite that, the school district didn't have a policy in place at the time to justify the gift. They do now.

Auditors also say that the school district did not ensure contracts were signed prior to services being rendered and paid for.

Watts said that two personal services contracts had been signed but not dated (the old form used back then didn't have a date line).

"It was a good opportunity for us to make the appropriate revisions," says Watts.

Enrollment reporting at the high school was at the heart of the problem of the second finding.

Watts explained the school district counts students based on full-time equivalency (FTE); if a student's there all day, it counts. If a student is enrolled in Running Start, which allows kids to take college courses while still in high school, the student counts as only half of an FTE. They also do headcounts at the same time.

The counts are conducted on the first day of the month from September to May; one is the FTE count and the other is the head count. FTE counts help determine how much funding the school district will get from the state to operate. Headcounts are used when it comes to construction funding.

To determine the total FTE average for the year the monthly FTE counts are divided by nine at the end of the year.

The problem at the high school is staff did a headcount and subtracted Running Start students instead of counting FTEs.

That resulted in the state overpaying the Sunnyside School District $114,000 during the 2006-07 school year and $82,500 in 2007-08.

Watts and Campbell readily agree the school district was overpaid.

"It's something that's gone on for years. The practice has been the same every year. It's money we shouldn't have had in the first place," Watts says.

Campbell elaborated and said, "It's not money we budgeted for, it's not money we spent. It's just been sitting there and now we're giving it back to where it came from."

The problem has since been rectified, both said. In fact, one could almost call it an overhaul.

Today, says Watts, "We have created a good system that tracks kids based on funding and eligibility."

One thing that Watts finds troublesome is the timing of the audits and audit releases. Though this report was created a year ago, it was released only a week ago. She noted the audit is not reflective of current practices.

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