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Botched record keeping and red ink mar audit; benchmark test scores show improvement

Poor record keeping and a blemished audit report are among issues dogging Sojourner Truth as it prepares to close its doors at the end of the current school year, board members learned at their monthly meeting, March 20.

While the school had received clean audit reports in the past, this year’s audit made reference to a slew of “documentation issues” that “were never fully resolved. ” A representative of the CRA auditing group told the board that a “significant amount of things were missing” from the school’s financial records.

The CRA rep went on enumerate many other issues such as “weaknesses in internal controls,” inadequate reporting of employee earnings, and a lack of records detailing the use of funds donated for certain purposes.  While the auditors ran into many issues, they do not believe the shortcomings to be “nefarious” but rather a benign failure to track expenses.

A school-sponsored trip to Panama was cited as a prime example of poor documentation. Chaperones withdrew funds from school-issued debit cards and then failed to document how the cash was spent. When asked whether a  further investigation was needed, board chair Bob Burvant said the matter had already been explored that additional prying would be a waste of time.  “When there’s no receipt, there’s no receipt,” Burvant said.

Keith Crawford of the finance committee attributed the poor audit to a “breakdown” in record keeping that resulted from the transition of leadership during the school year.  The CRA representative agreed: Breakdowns like that are “almost guaranteed” during a transition, he said, while noting that the problem is not usually “this bad.”

Making matters worse, the school’s balance sheets deteriorated severely in 2011, with a negative cash flow of $200,000, according to the CRA representative.  In all, 2011 was “a bad year” financially for the school, he said.

Student achievement has improved recently according to a benchmark test, a welcome respite from worsening scores on the previous benchmark test. Board member Charline Wright credited experienced teachers with the uptick. Administrators said the school’s new disciplinary procedures, discussed at the board’s last meeting, also were a factor.

By its April meeting the board must decide whether to offer a GED remediation course in June to seniors who do not pass an upcoming achievement test.  Some teachers have expressed interest in offering the course, but Burvant was hesitant to commit to the added compensation teachers would expect for working an extra three to four weeks.  To avoid the added financial burden, Burvant wants to explore other accommodations for students needing remediation.

The hour-long public meeting ended when the board went into executive session.

In addition to Burvant, Crawford and Wright, members present included Alice Parkerson, Lawliss Turner, Sybil Favrot, Ryan Mast and Annie Balart Michaels. Board members Elizabeth Rhodes and Victoria Johnson were absent.

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