BRISTOL - The Board of Education is on board with the city hiring an outside firm to conduct a forensic audit to find out how a $2.4 million deficit was overlooked in the 2016-17 school budget.
Mayor Ken Cockayne and Board of Finance Chairwoman Cheryl Thibeault have said they are searching for a firm to conduct the audit for the school board’s budgets of the past two years.
Earlier in the week City Comptroller Diane Waldron had identified the $2,381,120 deficit. The board had also ended 2015-16 with an unexpected $2,044,817 deficit, related to special education costs. At that time, city officials recommended a separate fund be set up to better manage special education costs, but the school board declined.
At a special meeting Thursday, the school board’s finance committee chairwoman, Karen Vibert said all nine board members, and school district staff past and present, “own some of this and we need to find out why this has happened and fix the problem.”
“What is not helpful right now quite honestly are dramatic social media posts,” she said. “Social media can be a great venue to inform the public but inciting the public with incorrect and inaccurate information is totally unfair to those citizens, and to my fellow BOE commissioners.”
She noted that all school board members sat through the same finance committee meetings, read the same reports, heard the same comments from the three different finance professionals who have handled the district’s finances over the past two years, and were told that things were in good shape.
Gary Franzi was the district finance director until he resigned a year ago. The city’s then comptroller, Glenn Klocko, handled school finances until Stephen Nembirkow was hired last January. Nembirkow resigned as of Aug. 18. The district is now searching for Nembirkow’s replacement.
“Two years ago our then finance director did not know about this structural error. He was followed by a second finance director who also did not recognize this issue. The city auditors did not find a problem,” Vibert said.
Vibert said she and board Chairman Chris Wilson had already discussed having a forensic audit done when they heard Cockayne and the Board of Finance had the same idea.
She said the purpose of the special meeting was “to make sure that all Board of Education commissioners understand the issue and your questions are answered.”
Superintendent Ellen Solek gave a brief description of how City Comptroller Diane Waldron contacted the district central office to alert them to the problem and review the city’s findings.
Deputy Superintendent Susan Moreau described in more detail how Nembirkow in a final memo had said the district had ended 2016-17 with a $191,000 surplus, after previously saying there would be a $500,000 surplus.
“I can’t say that I have a whole lot more information now,” Moreau said. “We certainly are looking not only backward but I’m concerned about looking forward and making sure that what we have on our accounts for ’17-’18 is sufficient. It’s my concern that if we have a structural deficit, and the two deficits are almost identical from ’15-’16 and ’16-’17, that we know we’re on solid ground going forward.”
She said there were some inconsistencies shown for the school accounts in the city’s MUNIS financial software program months, but that Klocko had said they shouldn’t be concerned about it.
“I will once again say I am embarrassed, and shame on us, that I did not push the issue,” Moreau said. She noted that MUNIS spreadsheets are not easy for a layperson to read but she wants to have some workshops to help familiarize administrators and board members with them “so that we’re all aware and this can never happen again.”
Thibeault said the finance board’s target is to have bids to conduct the forensic audit by Sept. 15 and start interviewing firms after that. She invited school board members to sit in on the process and give input.
“The target date is to have [the audit firm] complete their report and have things back to us by the end of the year. It’s a tight timeframe,” she said.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.