State audit of Connellsville Area School District 'threw up red flags all over the place'
March 3, 2016 9:47 AM
The Connellsville Area Career and Technical Center in Fayette County.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Connellsville Area School District depleted its fund balance and weakened its financial position, largely by pouring millions into what no other Fayette County district has -- its own Career and Technical Center, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said today.
Releasing results of a performance audit of the district, Mr. DePasquale used blunt terms in summarizing the audit, and events just after it was completed “raise concerns about the district’s long-term financial stability and leadership ability,” his office said in a statement.
The center was among the issues raised. It enrolled 5 percent of Connellsville’s students but is the district’s biggest financial strain, the auditor general said.
“The audit threw up red flags all over the place,” Mr. DePasquale said. “We see a revolving door of superintendents, a former administrator criminally charged with theft, and a district that’s struggling financially and academically.”
He said he is concerned enough about the district that he plans to meet with state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to see what assistance can be rendered.
He said his office also has turned over a copy of the audit to Fayette County District Attorney’s Office to see if one aspect of the findings -- what the auditor general said was improper awarding of overtime and compensatory time by a former superintendent -- warrants further investigation.
The audit generally covered the period from June 29, 2012 through Jan. 30, 2016. Mr. DePasquale said some of the financial pressures facing Connellsville can be found in many other school systems, and he noted that the district applied best practices “in the areas of academics, finance. governance and school safety” except for two findings in the audit.
It was those two findings around which much of his criticisms focused.
‘A unique financial drain’
Mr. DePasquale’s office said the district “set in motion a unique financial drain” when it established its own career and technical center years ago. He said it is “the largest financial strain on the district’s finances,” costing millions each year to operate.
The center educates fewer than 5 percent of the district’s students but helped deplete the district’s fund balance, despite seven consecutive years in which its general fund operations showed a surplus.
Between 2008 and 2014, the district’s fund balance first increased to $14 million, but then declined to $3 million -- leaving less than Financial Industry guidelines say should be kept for unforeseen expenses.
The balance was poised to move into negative territory, the audit found.
Between 2008 and 2014, the district transferred $20.5 million from the fund balance to the Career Technical Center, and another $28.8 million for debt service, some of it for the center.
Connellsville is the only school district in the county that has its own center, according to the audit. The other five districts send students to a countywide vocational school and pay a per-student fee.
Mr. DePasquale said that with the fund balance depleted, the district needs an alternative. The district said it is exploring options including drawing students from other districts but said it cannot close the center given debt service on recent renovations to it.
Mr. DePasquale’s audit also found that a former superintendent “retroactively authorized unsubstantiated overtime at a doubled rate for a former employee” and “granted this same employee compensatory time as expressly prohibited.”
The superintendent ordered a $2,500 payment, overruling a payroll specialist. One of the eight compensatory days, Feb. 26, 2014, was the same day that overtime was awarded for the employee.
“It does not seem reasonable for an employee to receive overtime pay for a day when he apparently wasn’t working,” the audit stated.
The audit said the employee is a former network administrator in the district technology department who began work at Connellsville on July 1, 2013, went on family medical leave and was later separated from district employment.
Mr. DePasquale’s office said it is the same employee who was charged with stealing district technology equipment.
Mr. DePasquale took issue both with the changeover in the superintendent’s office and the way the district hired its current superintendent, Phil Martell, who was acting Connellsville Area superintendent until Jan. 27, Mr. DePasquale said.
“In the last six years, Connellsville has had five superintendents, three of whom were ‘acting,’” Mr. DePasquale said. “When our audit team spoke with district administration on Jan. 20, they assured our auditors they were conducting a nationwide search for a new superintendent.”
“However,” Mr. DePasquale continued, “just days later, the board hired the acting superintendent — who had been the business manager with the district only five months before he was made acting superintendent — for the full-time superintendent spot under a five-year contract without publicly advertising that the vote would occur at the Jan. 27 meeting.
“Unless I’m missing something, it’s impossible to vet a nation’s worth of candidates in just a few days. This is outrageous, especially since the public was not notified before the board voted on the superintendent’s hiring.”
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
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