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Rift Grows Between School Superintendent, Board

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 June relocation of 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 mid-sized 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."

Timeline of Schools IT Move

Nov./Dec. 2005 Manager of Schools Department of Information Technology starts considering move. (from audit report.)

June 2006 Plant services estimates $183,000 cost of move. (from audit report.)

Sept. 2006Leadership team discuss budget with department heads. (07 Budget p. 16)

Feb. 21, 2007 $431,000 estimate prepared by administration and presented to School Board facilities committee. (According to Audit p. 2, but not documented in meeting minutes)

Feb. 28, 2007 Audit (p. 2) claims a document with this date notified the School Board that IT was being moved to the Richmond Tech Center. (No Board or committee meeting held on this date.)

March 26, 2007 Invitation for Bid for renovations at Tech Center released. (Audit p. 2)

March 28, 2007 Facilities committee votes to recommend to Board that Schools administration prepare plan to move School Board offices from City Hall to Onslow Minnis. IT relocation not discussed. (Facilities Committee minutes, March 28)

April, 2007 Construction begins at Tech Center. (Audit p. 2)

May 3, 2007 Letter from Mayor Wilder to Schools: "…the city stands ready to cover all reasonable expenses that we will incur in assisting in RPS' move."

May 4, 2007 Schools Chief Financial Officer Tom Sheeran signs contract with Woodland Construction for $228,550 to build room at Tech Center to host IT department.

May 7, 2007 Schools Finance Director Keith Brown recommends, and Board approves, giving Superintendent authority to make end-of-year budget transfers to balance FY 06-07 budget.

June 2, 2007 Move to Tech Center begins.

June 9, 2007 Move to Tech Center completed.

June 28, 2007 Superintendent presents report of move to finance Committee. Committee asks for internal auditor report.

Sept. 2007 Release of Schools internal audit of IT move shows total published cost of $689,119.29. Unpaid invoices documented in audit could drive final cost well above $700,000.

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