Attempts to receive clarity in several financial reports seem to only cause more confusion and consternation among several members of the Sumter School District Board of Trustees during their meeting Tuesday night at Mayewood Middle School.
The lack of clarity in one report presented by Superintendent Dr. Frank Baker, coupled with more difficult news coming from Scott Allan, the financial consultant hired by the board to analyze the district’s financial issue, prompted several of the board members to use some of their most direct language yet in calling for changes in district leadership.
It also prompted comments of frustration from several members of the public during the public comment portion of the meeting, including former Sumter mayor Steve Creech, who lambasted trustees, calling on them to “get your affairs in order,” before walking out to applause. “You are killing us at Shaw Air Force Base. There are assignments at Shaw that are refusing to come because of poor school records,” Creech said. “When they can go on the social media and see a video of someone talking about chickens in a school district, it’s embarrassing to the community, and it should be embarrassing to you folks.”
Video of the former mayor’s comments can be seen here.
The video he is referencing, from the district’s previous meeting, can be found here.
Before either Allan or Creech could make their statements, however, issues arose as Baker presented an updated version of the district’s quarterly capital projects report.
Two weeks ago, items missing from the report led some trustees, most notably Dr. Johnny Hilton, to question the financial records of the district, with the trustee saying the report appeared to be missing some $4 million in funds.
What was supposed to be an updated quarterly report for the period ending January 31, however, ended up being a completely revised report presented to the board Monday night. Not only were the missing expenditures added into the updated report, but expenditures for a multitude of items in the report, that should not have seen any variance from the initial report two weeks ago, saw changes, some by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I fail to understand how these numbers changed in two weeks, when the work was done (in January),” said Hilton, who added the series of reports coming out of the administration offices were much like the reports that failed to disclose the $6.2 million financial shortfall that led to the district’s current financial crisis. “My concern is this accounting is not accurate, and we’re having some major issues keeping up with our money, and it has to be fixed,” Hilton said. “This mismanagement and confusion has to stop, and there has to be some changes.”
Trustee Karen Michalik also raised issues with the report, highlighting several of the changes in the report, as well.
”Where is the finance director?” asked trustee Rev. Ralph Canty. “Here we are talking about finances and we haven’t seen the finance director at one of our meetings since first learning of the financial crisis.”
“It’s worse today,” Canty said of the updated capital projects report. “There’s nothing to do but to send it back again.”
Baker, who implied there could have been an issue with the accounting software used in developing the report, said the financial staff that composed the reports would be instructed to attend the next board meeting to answer trustees questions directly.
Once this portion of the meeting ended, trustees turned to Allan’s report, which began by informing the board that Moody’s had officially downgraded the district’s credit rating, primarily because of the recent negative audit. “It means our interest rates are going to be higher. We don’t have the credit-worthiness that we had before,” Allan said.
To try to recover from the downgrade, Allan said the district will have to keep financial austerity measures in place. “The unfortunate issue is, we need to cut our budget,” Allan said. “There won’t be any budget in this next budget for new positions. There just won’t.”
Allan’s comments prompted Chairman Darryl McGhaney to openly call for the district to hire a new Chief Financial Officer for the district, to which Allan agreed needed to be done sooner rather than later.
“You’re going to need one soon. There’s no question about that,” Allan said, adding that whoever the new CFO is needs to not only become acclimated with the district as quickly as possible, and preferably be someone with a strong enough character to potentially point out to other district officials when they might be violating budgetary policy.
Allan did say the district has, since the last time he spoke with them at a board meeting, enacted new policies to make sure there aren’t situations like last school year’s hiring of “unbudgeted” positions not happen again. “Before, it just wasn’t specific enough, and now it is,” Allan said of the district policy.
At the beginning of the meeting, McGhaney, perhaps in an effort to try to dissuade the outbursts from the last meeting, addressed the audience of about 200 members, saying the trustees are not treating any of the issues before them frivolously. “We’re taking each matter serious, and we’re going to discuss what we need to discuss and we’re going to take everything we hear in mind,” McGhaney said.
The end of the meeting, however, was severely delayed, as trustees remained behind closed doors for more than four hours in executive session. Upon returning to open session well after midnight, however, the board only voted on a few student expulsions and whether to approve the early five-year head-start grant application and its policies before adjourning without further comment.