Citizens, officials address BCPS audit

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 21, 2005

WINDSOR – There are always two sides to every issue.

That fact was none more evident here Monday afternoon where nearly 200 people filled the Bertie County Senior Center to hear the official presentation by officials with MGT of America in regards to an audit of the Bertie County Public School (BCPS) system. The audit, complete with its $50,000 price tag, was approved last year by the Bertie Board of Commissioners.

Even at the outset, controversy surrounded the audit. Some Bertie citizens were outraged that the Commissioners would commit tax dollars to an effort deemed &uot;repetitious&uot; in light of the Board of Education annually conducting their own audit.

Meanwhile, others approved the audit, saying it was necessary to address financial improprieties within the school system. The audit revealed an estimated five-year savings of $7.7 million.

The two sides came together in one room on Monday where the floor was open for public comment following the auditors’ presentation.

&uot;This doesn’t need to be political,&uot; Timothy Bazemore said. &uot;(The audit) needs to bring about a constructive means by making better use of our money.&uot;

Dr. Al Thompson, Director of Bertie County Rural Health, addressed two critical findings of the audit – slicing in half (from four to two) the number of nurses in the public schools and the recommendation that school administrators look at eliminating the free lunch program.

&uot;By increasing our in-school nurses several years ago, we saw less absenteeism among the students,&uot; Thompson noted. &uot;Our students also found themselves in a healthier environment, leading to better learning skills.&uot;

He continued, &uot;As far as proper nutrition is concerned, we live in a low-wealth county. For a lot of our students, the two meals they get at school are the only thing they eat all day.&uot;

Nancy Joyner saw free lunches from another angle.

&uot;I don’t think the audit report is saying to deprive those who qualify for free meals,&uot; she suggested. &uot;I think it’s only asking those who can afford to pay to do so.&uot;

Joyner also addressed nutritional values by pointing out there were too many snacks offered for sale in the cafeterias.

Martha Thompson wanted to know how did the audit, based upon several recommendations to eliminate positions and services, connected with the learning element within the schools.

To that, Linda Recio, an MGT official, said the savings are sent back to where they would do the most good – the classrooms.

Cindy Pridgen, a teacher at Bertie High School, was one of few school system employees that agreed the audit was necessary.

&uot;Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees,&uot; she said. &uot;The audit was necessary. It was an unbiased report.&uot;

Pridgen went on to address shortcomings within the classrooms.

&uot;Our children are doing without,&uot; she noted. &uot;They can’t take home a course book because they are sharing it with another student.&uot;

Meanwhile, BCPS employee Sharon Bond expressed her dismay that the audit called for the elimination of several vehicles owned by the school system.

&uot;The grant monies we received require teachers and staff to attend mandatory professional development workshops,&uot; Bond noted. &uot;We need access to dependable vehicles to travel to these workshops. If we do not attend, we run the risk of losing grant money, such as the $4.2 million we received for reading programs.&uot;

BCPS Assistant Superintendent Thomas Ruffin Jr. was very direct in his comments.

&uot;It’s a shame and a disgrace that we need a study on BCPS based upon rumors and personal vendettas,&uot; Ruffin said. &uot;Bertie is one of the fastest growing academic school districts in the state. We don’t need an outside source telling us how to run our school system. It’s time we came together as one.&uot;

Bobbi Parker, another BCPS employee, informed the audience of a survey that revealed 80 percent of the school system’s workers expressed confidence in their leadership.

&uot;But yet our county commissioners spend $50,000 for an audit based upon rumors,&uot; she said.

Marvin Kelly identified himself as an outspoken critic of the school board.

&uot;If there is political animosity, you have created it,&uot; Kelly said in reference to the county’s educational leadership. &uot;Your assumption that the report is political undermines the possibility of the county moving forward. You can’t give consideration to the audit because you see it as a biased document.&uot;

Jim Phelps said the audit was long overdue.

&uot;Ya’ll need to grow up,&uot; Phelps suggested. &uot;If you are here to really help out, then please do so. Find out what the problems are, fix them and don’t let them happen again. Take the findings of this audit and make them work.&uot;

Former BCPS teacher and coach Ron Cooke pointed out that whatever money is saved by implementing the suggestions of the auditors could be used to as salary supplements to attract and retain quality teachers.

&uot;Our kids deserve the best,&uot; Cooke noted. &uot;We need to make every effort to attract the very best teachers.&uot;

Brent Todd, a BCPS employee, placed some of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the county commissioners.

&uot;Part of the problem is the lack of funding due to the lack of tax base,&uot; he observed. &uot;But another part of the problem is we don’t feel we’re getting any support from the Bertie commissioners.&uot;

Carol Atkins, grant writer for BCPS, reputed a portion of the audit that claimed the school system was not doing enough to find grant money. She said since July of 2001, BCPS has received nearly $10.5 million in grant funding. She further stated that without the means for teachers/staff to travel to development workshops, BCPS stands to lose these multi-million dollar grants because they failed to meet the funding requirements.

Bertie High School principal Elaine White was among the last to speak. She began by admonishing the Board of Commissioners for not coming by the school to see, first hand, the needs of the students. She also questioned how the auditors could spend so little time in her school, but yet come away with the answers to school’s problems.

&uot;The auditors spent 30 minutes at the high school,&uot; she noted. &uot;I don’t believe they fully know what’s happening in our school and addressing the resources that are needed in just 30 minutes. I find it hard to believe that someone can come into a county for three days and tell us how to run our school system.&uot;

For the most part, the Bertie Board of Commissioners remained quiet throughout the session. However, at Monday night’s Commissioners meeting, board chairman Rick Harrell did offer a comment.

&uot;I feel today was a step in the right direction,&uot; Harrell said. &uot;It appears there’s a wedge driven between the commissioners and the board of education. That’s not the case. What we’ve learned in all of this is that we are in need of better communication between the two boards. We will move forward on this and we will do this together.&uot;

School Board Chairman Gary Cordon made his feelings known during the afternoon session.

&uot;The political ramifications from this audit may severely divide our county, depending upon whose camp you are in,&uot; Cordon noted. &uot;Let’s look at the facts. BCPS has made significant gains every year under Mr. Smith’s leadership. We’ve come a long way. Don’t you feel that we could have reached this same point without having to spend $50,000 for an audit?&uot;

The Board of Education is expected to make its annual budget request to the county commissioners on May 9.