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School board member Gerald Totten wants to know "where is the money?"

Posted Monday, February 9, 2009

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Pittsboro, NC - During the January 29 Board of Education meeting Colonel Gerald Totten, Chatham County school board member, read the following in response to the Chatham County Child Nutrition program:

There have just been some 35 minutes spent discussing the Chatham County Child Nutrition program and the problems it has experienced since at least 2007. There were also some comments about my having written to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about the lack of accountability. In legal parlance the following facts are known as Due Process. In the real world they are known as fairness.

Cafeteria managers first brought the matter to my attention in the late spring of 2007 following a meeting where they were accused of gross improprieties in managing and accounting for funds. Their traditional recognition lunch was not going to be held as a consequence. I spoke with Dr. Hart about those comments. She assured me there was a misunderstanding; that staff would take care of it. I heard nothing more and the luncheon was held.

When the annual audit was presented in November 2007 I asked about any management suggestions by the auditor. The assurance to the board was that any noted areas were under control now and that they really were insignificant. In fact a consultant’s report delivered in February of 2008 stated our 2007 losses for the period 1 July 2007 through 30 November were $190,000.

The problems were obviously not under control and gave rise to our interim superintendent’s memo to the board attached to this agenda item tonight. Dr. David Bryant had some 31⁄2 years’ as Director of Secondary Education in Chatham County Schools, giving him an insight into where staff problems might be and he pursued some of them. His memo regarding the food service problems dated January 12, 2008, makes some very serious statements about discoveries made during a “problematic and financial audit of our program”.
He went on to say, “Because it is of serious concern with both personnel and financial improprieties under investigation and likely to involve actions against one or more school district employees, we are not yet ready to address the issue in full with the board.”

To date, a year later, the issue has yet to be addressed in full with the board. In November 2007 the board adopted the reconciled child nutrition budget with an appropriation of $831,755 from our own local fund balance through another budget resolution. That appropriation met needs for fiscal year 2007-2008. Last Monday, 5 January 2009, at the board retreat we were informed there was another $800,000 of local fund balance used during the current fiscal year, 1 July 2008 – 30 June 2009, to balance our budget. To quote that messenger, “We won’t have that this budget cycle.”

On 6 October 2008 Mr. Logan was asked about Dr. Bryant’s comments about improprieties under investigation.

Mr. Logan stated “that didn’t happen.” Yet we had three food service directors move on in short order and still we cannot hire another one. To date no one has been held accountable or even owned up to staff mismanagement or lack of oversight where we have spent millions to cover the shortages, taking them from other significant needs as also outlined during the 5-6 January retreat.

Yes, I smelled a rat in the woodpile and questioned what had happened. As part of that questioning I spoke briefly with a former state school superintendent who advised the letter to the USDA. Obviously they are not interested in such an insignificant amount possibly because the amounts were covered by local funds or maybe the wagons have circled to protect administrators who allowed the deficits to mount without accountability at state and local levels.

Dr. Bryant was also using his considerable experience evaluating the academic side of the house.

It seems our answer to his efforts designed to improve our system was to shoot the messenger. In April 2008 the board chair and the then vice chair went to his home and exercised the thirty day termination clause in his employment contract.

When the messenger is terminated and several mid-level administrators leave on short notice are we really performing our board oversight duties by not questioning in detail the reasons? The code of ethics included to be signed tonight states in part, “The board recognizes that collectively and individually, all members. . . . .in order to improve public education.” Are we improving public education by covering personnel and financial improprieties by simply throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at such mismanagement without accountability? I think not and will pursue individually as needed actions designed to improve public education.

We have a very concise guide to follow to organize and improve our actions if we would only follow it. It is the Key Work of School Boards Guidebook put out by the National School Boards Association.

As to the code of ethics, change the word “newly” so that those of us who predate the adoption of the policy can legally sign it rather than sign a post-dated document.

Chairwoman Russell stated she had some comments to make as well. Her comments were as follows:

“I feel this matter has been adequately addressed by this Board repeatedly in the form of a consultant, in the form of reports, and every contingency has been covered. There were a couple of minor personnel matters that have been resolved, but the primary cause as throughout the State has been food costs, labor costs, participation and pricing. The attorney referenced the duties and responsibilities and legal limitations of board members at the recent Board Retreat. First and foremost being that no member of a board of education has authority to act alone. The letter written by Col. Totten to the USDA violates that in several areas. “Please advise me directly whether that audit will be made.” No member of this Board has authority to do that. He identifies himself as a member of the Board of Education. We were specifically cautioned against this at our Retreat in terms of what we are legally able to do. We were reminded, as we should have all known, that the Board of Education is a legal corporate body. It has only authority when we act by majority vote. Secondly it was stated, time and time again, that in addition to no member having authority to act alone, which was violated here, that a core duty of a board member is to support the decision of a board once made. Every one of us had a platform when we ran for office and all five could have been different, so to say this is what I ran on, this is what I promised is not valid, because you cannot do that alone. If four other people disagree, then that’s the decision of the Board, and it doesn’t matter what platform you may have had because there is no authority to act alone. The duty is to support the decision of the Board. Here we have an action being taken on the very same day the Board voted to get the waiver letter and action was taken that directly contravened the decision of the Board—by asking for a personal report to an individual member who had no authority to do so.”...

Chairwoman Russell referenced other statements made in the letter to USDA and ended her comments by stating the remarks in the letter brings the Board to the point of legal
liability, making accusations against administration members of cover-ups could result in legal action against the Board and personal legal action against the person making the
accusations.

Attorney Ken Soo stopped the conversation from going further as to avoid referencing individuals.

 
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School board member Gerald Totten wants to know "where is the money?"

Related info:
1/29 BOE Meeting Minutes
 
News Unofficial Chatham County Schools site

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