Schools audit reveals problems

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 12, 2006

WINDSOR – “It was not the most pleasant year you just endured.”

Those were the words of Gerrellene Walker who owns the Tarboro auditing firm under contract by the Bertie Board of Education to inspect the school system’s finances.

Walker was making reference to what can best be described as a tumultuous fiscal year (2004-05) for the public school system. Included was the MGT audit, a study ordered by the Bertie County Commissioners that scolded the county’s educational leaders for a sub-par job of handling their finances, internal programs and system-owned cell phones as well as mismanaging their fleet of county. There were also accusations of mis-use of credit cards by senior administrators, an allegation now being investigated by the SBI.

“Your new Superintendent (Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart) is working expeditiously to clean things up, but that takes time,” Walker said. “Meanwhile, I can see another challenging year ahead.”

Walker said the reliability of the financial records improved over the last six months of the fiscal year, but there remained some serious issues that need addressing.

“One of those issues was with the credit cards,” she said. “We found some payments were made late and that’s illegal for a school system if they have not gained permission to do so from the LGC (Local Government Commission).”

The two biggest issues discovered by Walker were the general unreserved fund balance and that the system had spent more funds than they received.

“I nearly had a heart attack when I figured your fund balance,” Walker noted of the net $25,178 in that account. “Because of that low fund balance, the LGC will be monitoring your situation.”

She insisted that an ideal fund balance for a school system such as Bertie should be approximately $1.25 million.

A check of Bertie County’s financial records revealed that the Bertie Board of Education listed a net unreserved general fund balance of $428.249 at the end of the 2003-04 fiscal year.

Walker also noted that while sudden increases in utilities and gas did not help Bertie’s situation, she chastised school officials for spending $500,000 more than was received.

“This has to stop or locate additional sources of revenue,” she said.

Dr. Collins-Hart, speaking to this newspaper from a break in a workshop she was attending on Wednesday, said declining funds are hurting the system.

“Our operating budget over the past five years has declined, but our operational costs have not changed,” said Dr. Collins-Hart who inherited the school system’s problems when she was hired in June of last year.

She continued, “Each year it appears we have tapped into our fund balance to run existing programs. We’ve either have to find additional funding or make drastic cuts in our programs. These will be very painful cuts because they will impact student programs.”

Dr. Collins-Hart agreed that much work was ahead for the school system, but she felt confident that Bertie Public Schools are headed in the right direction.

“The practices of the past will not continue under my leadership,” she said. “I’m optimistic that the (Bertie) Commissioners are willing to fund our programs as long as we can prove we are fiscally responsible.”

The Superintendent said despite the proposed closings of three schools within the system, she remains in charge of 10 total schools.

“We must sustain operational costs for 10 schools,” she noted, “but I do see the need for additional funds to properly operate those 10 schools. We will do what’s in the best interest of the school-aged children of this county.”

She concluded by saying, “It was a sign of good faith by our Commissioners when they just recently allocated $100,000 in additional operating costs. That’s a sign we can move forward together.”

Seaton Fairless, Chairman of the Bertie School Board, expressed concern over the fund balance.

“We’ve got to look at ways not to go into that fund,” he said.

Fairless went on to say that losing students is hurting the system’s finances.

“We went into the fund balance to replace $109,000 we had to send back to the state because of falling enrollment,” Fairless said.

The Board Chairman said the Bertie school system had lost 348 elementary students over the past nine years, 165 of which have left the system over the past three years.

He also noted increased spending per student at three elementary schools. Fairless noted that the school system is spending roughly $3,500 to $4,000 more per student than the state allows at both Askewville and J.P. Law elementary schools and an additional $1,600 for each student at Aulander Elementary.

The state pays $5,728 per student in Bertie County.

“We’re spending a total of $906,000 more at those three schools than the state allows,” Fairless noted. “We’ve got to be data-driven and make the decisions that need to be made.”

Those three schools are marked for closure if a plan submitted by the School Board gains formal approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I understand the compassion of our citizens to keep those three community schools open, but I’m concerned about the entire county,” Gary Cordon, School Board member, said. “The three best performing schools in our system receive more resources. Those resources should be more equitable throughout the county.”

The School Board unanimously agreed to approve the audit as presented.