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November 29, 2011 Published in Editorials

Where there’s Smoke

Irregularities have been discovered in the procedures for administering the Alexandria City Public Schools Capital Budget. Funds appear to have been shifted among projects without proper authorization. Superintendent of Schools Morton Sherman has launched an investigation including an audit by an outside firm.

While there is no evidence at the moment that school funds have been stolen, the Superintendent's action to have this scrutinized is right on target. There are, however, serious questions that must be answered if the investigation reveals improper administration.

First, why is it necessary to shift funds in the capital budget? Are the estimates of the cost so faulty that projects are underfunded or is there a game of "bait and switch" to get extra money for pet projects? The underlying reason for this problem must be exposed.

Second, how long has this practice of shifting capital budget funds without proper approvals been in use in ACPS? Is it a practice that began with Dr. Sherman's tenure or does it date back further to other superintendents? Former Superintendent Rebecca Perry had a history of shifting operating funds. Dr. Sherman should have been made aware of this and should have dealt comprehensively with it at the beginning of his administration.

Third, who exactly is involved in this practice? Is it limited to an individual or individuals within the Facilities group or does it reach up higher into the Administration? Did the District's Chief Financial Officer, Jean Sina, or Deputy Superintendent Margaret Byess who oversees Facilities know of it or condone it? It is difficult to conceive that relatively low ranking employees could cause large sums of money to be shifted without the knowledge of their superiors.

Fourth, an annual Audit of ACPS finances is supposed to be performed in the fall of each year. Do The Audits or the Management Letters that accompany them reflect these suspect processes? If the regular auditors of ACPS overlooked them then it is time to replace those auditors. If they reported the problems then the Superintendent and his staff should have investigated them long ago. Perhaps the scope of the regular audit does not cover capital funds. Should it be expanded?

Fifth, what is the role of the School Board in this matter? The current School Board has a 3 member Audit Committee that is supposed to review the audits. Do they do their job? Does the full Board examine audits and raise questions?

The Superintended and the School Board have been asking for increased amounts of capital funds. Resolving this situation in an open and credible manner should be the test as to whether they have the capacity to manage them in a manner acceptable to Alexandria's citizens. Right now, there are too many questions and far too few answers.

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