Carolina Journal News Reports
KENANSVILLE — Relocation expenses paid to a Duplin County Schools employee who then failed to move is believed to have triggered an impending State Bureau of Investigation probe of the school district. County commissioners had earlier requested an audit of the school system based on resident complaints of financial mismanagement.
While the bureau declines to comment publicly on whether an investigation is in progress, long time Duplin County District Attorney Dewey Hudson said he has asked the agency to look into the matter “preliminarily.”
Three county commissioners and three citizens signed a letter to Hudson on Sept. 14, 2009, asking for the investigation. The letter questioned the legality of paying employee moving expenses for a move that did not occur, the alleged the misuse of federal funds, and violations of the open bidding law in connection with the schools’ purchase of a $600,000 “camera project.”
“The SBI is very busy,” Hudson said. “It takes a while for them to get going on something.”
Hudson, who recently announced he would run to fill the 10th Senatorial District seat of retiring Democratic State Sen. Charlie Albertson, would not discuss the reason for the investigation.
“We don’t want to say what our evidence is,” Hudson said.
Nathan Currie, director of Duplin County Schools’ special programs, received $6,500 in relocation expenses near the end of the 2007 school year. He began work with the district in May 2007, and had been promised administrative supplement pay. The school board froze the supplements on the day Currie began work.
He complained, and in a closed session, the board agreed to pay him an equal amount as moving expenses. Currie lived with his mother in nearby Columbus County and apparently still does. After what original minutes of the meeting describes as “considerable discussion,” the board agreed to disguise the supplemental pay as relocation expenses. Minutes later were altered to remove evidence of the change.
The Duplin County Board of Commissioners requested the school audit after the school district asked for $78 million in operating and construction funds. The district had overspent its budget the previous year by $3.7 million. The county’s population is about 53,000 residents, but only 13,000 are property owners who foot the vast majority of the bill. Duplin is second in the state for its large immigrant population, most of whom are renters.
“We could not afford to give them this money,” Commissioner Cary Turner said. “The state categorizes us as a low-income county and gave us $4.8 million.”
The district sued the county and the jury awarded the schools $2.6 million. The county is appealing the decision.
School district officials objected to the audit and threw roadblocks into the path of Linda Ricio, who conducted the audit in 2008. Her final report is dated Feb. 16, 2009. Ricio is president of Florida-based Evergreen Solutions.
“I was blocked from interviewing many of the people I wanted to talk to and (school administrators) limited the time of my interviews,” Ricio said.
A 20-year veteran of performance audits, Ricio has worked for districts as large as the Los Angeles Unified School District to others as small, or smaller, than Duplin. She commonly spends about 400 hours in a district the size of Duplin County’s, but she was allowed only 100 hours to accomplish her goals here.
“I was not allowed to visit schools, and that’s an important part of the audit,” she said. “I visit the schools and ask questions of school-level employees. I usually spend at least an hour interviewing principals, but I was allowed only 30 minutes and they hand-picked four principals for me to interview. That hasn’t happened to me in over 100 audits.”
By contrast, Ricio also conducted an audit of Duplin County. “They were very open and honest,” she said. “The county manager insisted on that.”
The school district should have been more transparent in its contact with Ricio, said Board of Education member Jennings Outlaw.
“We didn’t give her access to people freely enough,” he said. “The board was pretty well aware of the limitations put on her, but they did nothing. They set the time limits on the people she talked to. Sometimes it was at the recommendation of the superintendent or the finance manager. They said they didn’t want people to be away from their jobs too much.”
A preliminary report on the school audit showed hidden reserves of $709,462, some of which involved federal funds. “(Duplin County Public Schools) could not provide adequate documentation to demonstrate management control over federal financial assistance,” the report stated.
School finance officer Carolyn Olivarez left Duplin County about six months ago. Dr. Wiley Doby, district superintendent, has asked the board not to renew his contract when it expires June 30. Doby did not return phone calls seeking an explanation for his decision to leave the district.
Outlaw, who is nearing the end of his first term on the school board, opposed the lawsuit filed against the county and is not satisfied with the financial information he receives from the administration.
“I haven’t been able to feel comfortable that I know where all the money is going or how it’s spent,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that there are funds there that I’m not familiar with.”
Residents worry that an unusually high turnover rate among teachers and other staff, as well as the SBI investigation and alleged financial shenanigans, are continuing to move the district’s focus away from education. The most recent final No Child Left Behind-Annual Yearly Progress Report is for 2007-08, and details dismal results for local students. Only one of 16 schools met AYP goals.
“The implementation of higher proficiency standards for the 2007-08 year has brought many new challenges to school systems across the state with a solid (sic). Duplin County Schools will continue to strive to meet these challenges and provide our students educational foundation. Our focus will remain on preparing our students for success in higher education institutes and the 21st century workplace,” reads the statement released by the district when the AYP results were announced.
Lee Raynor is a contributor to Carol