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Rift Grows Between Superintendent, School Board

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An internal audit is raising credibility issues for School Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman's administration at a time when the elected School Board is under fire from business interests and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

Schools auditor Debra Johns has found that the school system's decision to relocate in June its information technology department from City Hall cost more than $700,000. That's higher than earlier estimates of about $540,000 and twice the cost of Wilder's aborted move of the School Board offices out of City Hall Sept. 21.

In the June move, approximately 15 employees were relocated, along with a bank of computer servers on racks that take up about the space of a midsized car.

School Board members say Johns' audit reveals worrisome holes in the schools administration leadership and confirms a disturbing trend of administrators circumventing the School Board's budgetary process.

"This is a pattern," says School Board Member Keith West, frustrated that the audit shows administrators had the authority to undertake the IT department move without the board approving the expense. "If [Jewell-Sherman] were willing to buy an aircraft carrier," he says, "then she could do that, right? You keep extrapolating, and it means that the budget is an advisory opinion of where we think they should spend the money — and not an order."

West has grown increasingly critical of schools administration for what he says is a fast and loose willingness to disregard the School Board's budget, spending money for its own apparent pet projects.

Johns' report seemingly gives administration carte blanche in certain decision-making areas, some on the board complain. The report says the superintendent has purchasing authority and can delegate that authority to an agent.

By extension, West says, the administration could have authorized its own move out of City Hall without the authorization of the School Board and found funding for the move by transferring funds from one account to another.

The board inadvertently authorized many of the IT budget transfers, West says, after the administration asked permission to make some fund transfers in order to "balance the budget" at the end of the 2006 fiscal year.

"Who knew they were just trying to sneak something by the board there?" West says. "It seems pretty clear to me that that's what was going on."

School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf bashes administrators, referencing an angry letter Mayor Wilder sent to Jewell-Sherman a few months prior to his attempt to push schools out of City Hall: "It brings new meaning to the term 'duplicitous.'"

Johns' audit reports the IT department's move cost $689,119.29, largely paid for with money assembled through a series of small, interdepartmental budget transfers.

But the total cost may climb even higher. Johns' report also provides a list of bills from outside vendors involved in the move. Not all have been paid in full, and Johns' total also does not account for nearly $49,300 in outstanding invoices from vendors.

School Board Chairman George Braxton says he didn't see any specific violations in the audit report. But, he says, "the spirit of the way that the administration and board are seeking to work together may not have been reflected in the way things were done."

West goes further. "To me, two things come to mind," he says. "The administration is willing to do whatever it wants to do, and two, there's money there when they want to find it.

"If we can't trust the school administration to do what they're supposed to do," West says, "that's a big problem."



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