Bertie School Board addresses financial shortfall

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WINDSOR – The financial crisis facing Bertie County Schools took center stage here Tuesday morning.

During the first of a two-day work session, the school board axed programs, cancelled contracts and began the business of sorting out the financial condition of the coming school year.

After three-plus hours in closed session, the board emerged and began discussing school district contracts and programs that were faced with budget shortfalls.

Board Attorney Rod Malone suggested the board instruct staff to gather all contracts that were currently valid to bring to the board for review.

“What it seems to me the board might want to consider is asking staff to pull together contracts they believe to be in place as of July 1,” Malone said.

Vice Chairman Alton Parker agreed.

“We need to see where the money is going right now,” he said.

Board Chair Gloria C. Lee then instructed Associate Superintendent Kenneth Perry, Assistant Superintendent Carol Atkins and Interim Finance Officer Charlene Cobb to provide the board those documents as soon as possible.

Perry said it would take about two days for staff to prepare the documents, which prompted board member Pamela Chamblee to ask why it would take that amount of time.

Perry said contracts could be in a number of offices in the central administration building and that there were several people out of place on vacation this week.

Lee asked Perry to have the contracts assembled by Thursday for the board’s called meeting on that day.

The discussion of the contracts also prompted an exchange between Parker and former chairperson Emma Johnson.

When discussing the contracts, Johnson said she had discussed with auditor Dale Smith the financial condition of the school district in April.

“I was told the books were in good shape,” she said.

Parker interrupted, saying he had a memo from Smith that said he (Smith) had told Johnson on July 1 that the school was facing a drastic shortfall.

“I’m getting to that,” Johnson said. “I spoke in April to Mr. Smith and never spoke to him again. If he said he told me the books were not in good shape, that is not true.”

Board members asked Malone about his conversation with Smith and he said it was more in line with the one Smith had with Parker.

“I spoke with Mr. Smith and he said a year earlier he had held a conference with (Bertie Schools Superintendent) Dr. (Chip) Zullinger, telling him that $1.5 million needed to be cut,” Parker said. “He said that when the paperwork was coming through, he saw no indication of cuts and again spoke with Dr. Zullinger.”

Parker said Smith then told him he called Johnson, asking her to relay the information to the board. Parker said he had an affidavit to that effect.

Johnson, however, said again that she did not speak with Smith but once and that was in April.

“If he spoke to Dr. Z a year ago and said cuts needed to be made, how could the books have looked good even in April,” Parker asked.

Lee then asked the board to “let’s get back on track” and focused the discussion on contracts.

The board chair asked Malone what should be done to notify anyone who did not have a contract with the school district that their services were not needed.

Malone suggested the board require contracts for every service and that they could temporarily suspend Policy 7400 which authorizes the superintendent to enter into contracts or even revise the policy.

“There is probably a threshold when you’re going to need the superintendent to sign things and keep them moving,” Malone suggested.

After discussion, Johnson made a motion to lower to $25,000 the amount of any contract the superintendent could enter into without board approval and to require monthly reporting of all contracts.

Policy 7400 had previously given the superintendent authority to enter into contracts up to $50,000 and required quarterly reporting of contracts between $25,000 and $50,000.

The board also officially voted to suspend the Shaw Cadet Program. Last week, the cadets received word the board would eliminate the program, but the board had not officially acted.

The Shaw Cadet Program allowed Bertie High School graduates to be paid for working and to attend school at Shaw University’s CAPE Center for free. The graduates then agree to work for the school system for five years.

Chamblee asked if there was any way money was going to be found to at least assist those who were in the program.

“Do you think we can find funds when we have someone look at the books to at least, in all fairness, assist those who were in the program complete it,” she asked.

Malone reminded Chamblee the program was costing the school district $250,000 to $300,000 per year.

“I know,” she said. “My heart just goes out to them.”

Parker made a motion to suspend the program and it carried without objection.

The board also cancelled a contract with the company providing a speaker for opening assembly due to the $1,500 plus expenses cost.

The board was set to continue discussing its financial condition on Wednesday. Agenda items included alternative school, structure of high school, STEM, One Economy, Resource Officers, vital positions, status of seeking an interim superintendent and board member compensation.

The school board will also meet on Thursday morning at 9 a.m. They will meet with a prospective financial consultant at that time.