He said….she said

Published 9:14 am Thursday, August 5, 2010

WINDSOR – Informed or not continues to be the question.

Tuesday night, during the regular meeting of the Bertie County Board of Education, the question rose again as to whether or not former school board chair Emma Johnson was informed about the dire financial condition of the district.

Last week, at a special meeting of the board, Johnson and Vice Chair Alton Parker disagreed about whether or not Johnson had been told about the poor financial health of the system.

At that meeting, Parker said he had information from auditor Dale Smith of Anderson, Smith and Wike that Johnson had been informed of the financial problems during a July 6 telephone call. Johnson denied such a call ever took place.

Tuesday evening, Smith was present at the board meeting and Johnson brought up the alleged conversation.

“You called me in April to tell me that you had done a preliminary report on the financial condition of Bertie County Schools,” Johnson said.

Smith said that was not the case, indicating he had called to ask if there was anything the auditing firm should be aware of before the audit began.

“You said (Bertie Interim Finance Officer) Charlene Cobb had done an excellent job with our finances and the books were in even better shape than the previous year,” Johnson responded. “You also asked if I needed to look into anything, but you said the books were in good financial condition.”

Smith shot back, “You must have forgot about the phone conversation of July 6.”

Smith said the telephone records he provided proved he spoke to Johnson on that day. He further indicated he had spoken with former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger about the financial condition of the district and informed Dr. Zullinger that he (Smith) was going to the board chair.

Smith said he talked to someone at length about the financial problems.

At that point, Interim Superintendent Dr. Will Crawford said he felt the auditor had clearly done his part.

“You have done a very good job of trying to warn above and beyond,” Dr. Crawford said. “It should be our responsibility to be better financial stewards of our resources.”

Board Attorney Rod Malone said he had information that was part of the discussion.

Dr. Crawford, however, said he did not believe there was any need to continue the conversation.

“There is no need in incurring hard feelings,” the interim superintendent said.

Smith said he agreed and that he had no intention of discussing the situation until he was asked.

“It was not my intent to bring it up,” he said. “We don’t perform management functions.”

Smith said it was his firm’s stance to provide information about financial health, suggest changes and then, in the next audit, report as to whether those changes had been implemented.

“It’s our job to tell you what to do, but we can’t do it,” he said.

Board member Pamela Chamblee then asked Malone to read an email from Smith to Dr. Zullinger into the record.

That email indicated that Smith intended to speak with Johnson about the financial condition of the system.

After the meeting, Malone released a letter from Smith to Parker and accompanying documentation to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and Bertie Ledger-Advance as part of a public records request.

In the letter, Smith indicated he had spoken to Johnson and provided his telephone records to verify his claims.

“You and I have had several phone conversations regarding whether or not I notified Ms. Emma Johnson of the critical fund balance situation that Bertie County Schools faces,” Smith wrote to Parker. “I did in fact have this conversation with Ms. Johnson on the morning of July 6th and I sent you a statement to that effect…”

Smith went on to say he read an article in the News-Herald that Johnson denied having the conversation. The auditor then detailed the conversation, saying Dr. Zullinger initially called him from Zullinger’s cell phone, but the reception was not good, so after getting disconnected four times, the call was made from a land line.

“I plainly told Mrs. Johnson of the critical situation the board was in and she assured me that steps would be taken to address the problems,” Smith wrote. “She also told me that Chip had even shared with her the email that I had sent to him on July 3rd that contained the chart of the Board’s revenues and expenditures for the past three years.

“I stressed to her that this issue was critical and needed to be addressed immediately due to the speed at which the board’s fund balance was being used,” the letter continued.

Smith provided telephone records, indicating two calls were made from Dr. Zullinger’s cell phone and two made to the cell phone from Smith between 9:48 a.m. and 9:59 a.m. on July 6. The records then indicated an incoming call to Smith from Johnson’s home telephone number.

“I don’t know why Ms. Johnson denies talking with me that morning, but I wanted to make it clear and provide evidence that I did talk with her on the morning of Tuesday, July 6, 2010 just as I said I did,” Smith wrote to Parker.

Dr. Crawford said at the end of the discussion that he felt it was obvious Smith had made efforts to keep the district informed.

“Let’s put this behind us,” Smith said. “I promise I did not want to get into this tonight.”