Schools told to refund money

Friday, December 10, 2010

Marshall County's school system is being asked to refund $3,360 in federal funds that were allegedly spent improperly. It's also been told to improve its administrative controls when spending money.

In a memorandum to schools director Roy Dukes, dated Nov. 22, Chris Steppee, director of internal audit for the state's Depart-ment of Edu-cation, details six "findings and recommendations on various administrative and fiscal issues" related to federally funded programs.

Among them was a Lewisburg Middle School awards ceremony for seventh and eighth graders on May 24 and 25 when food costs were $3,124, according to the state audit.

A written response is requested by Wednesday.

The school board is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

The system's response to state auditors must say whether Dukes agrees or disagrees with each finding and recommendation. "A description of the action that will be taken to implement each recommendation" is also requested.

State Education Department spokeswoman Amanda Anderson stressed that the audit was incomplete and was "still in draft form." Anderson declined to discuss audit details until the department makes a final finding.

Marshall County's federal projects director Linda Williams-Lee likewise declined to comment until the investigation was complete. Asked when that would be, Williams-Lee said, "It'll take a while."

Williams-Lee also declined to put the amount of money into perspective.

Williams-Lee oversees approximately $200,000 "or better," Dukes said from memory on Thursday morning, speaking on his mobile phone at Chapel Hill Elementary School.

"This raises much concern," school board member Randy Perryman wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. He declined to comment further "until this has been discussed by the school board and all parties concerned."

Board chairman Mike Keny said it would definitely be discussed at Monday's meeting.

"It is a draft," Keny emphasized. "I plan on talking to Dukes and getting his side of the story. It may have been a simple oversight, but if we're doing something wrong it needs to be corrected. You've got to be very careful how you spend other people's money."

While putting the amount of money involved into perspective, Dukes said, "It's really not a bad investigation, but some money was spent that wasn't approved of. It's a very small amount compared to the total dollars."

Asked what might be said to those who might contend that there's a principle involved; that of good stewardship of federal money, the schools director noted that spending money on an awards ceremony at Lewisburg Middle School was a way to increase parental involvement.

"I don't believe the federal Title 1 program officials know how much was involved," Dukes said.

"Probably" 400 students and 60-70 parents were involved, not counting staff involvement; he said to provide an immediate estimate while at Chapel Hill Elementary School where a totally different kind of problem was being addressed.

Given the auditors' conclusion that an awards ceremony should not have been funded with federal money, contrary to a view by other school system employees, the director indicated he was unsure why the ceremony was seen as qualifying as a program that generated parental involvement under federal guidelines.

The school system had not yet finished writing its response to the federal findings, Dukes said, explaining that he was to have a telephone conversation Thursday afternoon "to be sure I'm responding to what they want me to be responding to."

Keny confirmed that board members received a copy of the memorandum from their attorney Sam Jackson on Dec. 7, and said that was the first they had heard of it.

The memo's first three "findings" conclude with requests for repayment of a total of $3,360.25 of federal money.

* The Title I Part A program was charged $3,124 for the food served at the end-of-year awards ceremony at LMS on May 24-25, 2010. The justification for this was that it was a "parental involvement activity." The state Department of Education is of the opinion that "holding a parental involvement activity on the last two days of school...does not meet the spirit of the.... requirements of the Title 1 Part A program and...the costs associated with the awards ceremonies do not appear to be a reasonable and necessary cost to the program."

* Travel costs of $202.49 were paid out of Title I funds when they should not have been. The school health coordinator claimed these expenses for attending a conference in Nashville in October 2009, but coordinated school health is not a Title I program, so this was "not a necessary expense to the Title I program."

* A claim for $26.76 for breakfasts was paid to an employee attending the Tennessee Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages conference March 4-6, 2010. The Department of Education found that this was contrary to the policy that states, "When meals are provided by the conference and should you choose to dine on your own, that meal will not be reimbursable." This money is supposed to be repaid to Title III.

The other three "findings" are in the form of recommendations.

* "The school district should take immediate steps to allocate the actual cost of the ESEA/NCLB [Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind] supervisor's [Williams-Lee] salary/benefits of the July-September quarter of 2010."

This relates to Williams-Lee and the way her time is split between federal projects and human resources. "At the time of the field work for this review, the employee's full salary was being charged to ESEA/NCLB programs and no monthly or quarterly allocations had been made to charge the appropriate share ... to a general purpose fund account."

Keny saw this as potentially the biggest problem, stating that now the school board would have to find money in the general purpose fund to cover the human resources portion of Williams-Lee's salary.

"That'll be an issue," he predicted.

* "The school district should require employees to fully document travel claims" and supervisors who approve travel claims should "ensure adequate explanation and supporting documentation is present before reimbursement."

* "The school district needs to require adequate supporting documentation for payment of vendor invoices... An authorized approval signature is necessary to ensure program funds are being spent to benefit the program."

Senior Staff Writer Clint Confehr contributed to this story.