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Damning Audit Shows School System Can't Audit Itself?

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A dark cloud of scrutiny still hangs over the Richmond School Board's internal auditor after a recent outside audit revealed massive overspending, questionable oversight and potentially illegal purchasing practices.

You'd think it would vindicate School Board member Keith West, who for months has called for the removal of Richmond Public Schools Auditor Debora Johns in order to consolidate the school auditor's office with that of City Auditor Umesh Dalal.

Instead, School Board Chairman George Braxton removed West as chairman of the board's Finance, Budget and Audit Committee March 19 as retribution for West's seeking Johns' ouster.

West remains odd man out on the board. He's actively recruiting citizens to run against his colleagues and still believes it's time for Johns to go. "I think it's a mess, and it should have been eliminated at least six months ago when [Johns'] ineptitude became apparent after she audited the IT move," West says.

Shortly before the attempted eviction of the School Board's central office in September, then-Assistant Superintendent Tom Sheeran pooled money from various other departmental budgets to pay more than $700,000 to build a special room at the Richmond Technical Center to house the school system's central computers and the department that oversees their operation.

In the wake of that move, Sheeran's actions came under intense scrutiny by members of the board, which called on Johns to audit the move. A number of board members at the time confidentially referred to that audit as a test of Johns, though only West and Carol A.O. Wolf maintained their public discontent after Johns' published audit findings absolved Sheeran. Sheeran resigned in November.

West took the fall for calling out the auditor, but it wasn't long ago that other board members -- and City Council — shared his concerns.

In May 2003, the School Board (which at the time counted current members Carol A.O. Wolf and Joan Mimms among its nine members) adopted a resolution to consolidate services. The school auditor was not part of that consolidation plan.

A 2006 City Council resolution directly named the school auditor's office as among more than a dozen departments that could be folded into corresponding city departments. A state review in August 2004 had also recommended the same.

To date, no significant consolidation has occurred, with some School Board members balking at the notion of losing control of the board's own audit function.

City Auditor Dalal says folding the school auditor's office into his department would change little if anything about the School Board's ability to control its destiny or to call for audits of school system functions and accounts.

"If it happened, they would have to have some mechanism where [the city auditor] would do regular reporting to the School Board," Dalal says.

More importantly, Dalal says, it's a matter of fact and city charter that "the city auditor probably does have authority to audit city schools," meaning that the school auditor position is even more of a redundancy.

"By ordinance, we can audit and conduct audits of public schools as well as any entity that is receiving public money from the city," Dalal says.



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