Council requests financial update from school board

Published 11:48 am Saturday, June 13, 2015

When Franklin City Councilman Benny Burgess asked that council make an official request relating to a report on how certain money has been spent in the school district, he didn’t expect the fight that ensued.

In July 2014, Superintendent Willie J. Bell came before the board to request approximately $119,000 of the carryover money set for the 2015-16 financial year to pay for updating the curriculum during the summer and for professional development.

However, the superintendent told them in October that part of that money was used to pay for a contractor who’s primary job was developing the Corrective Action Plan. The system was working on an addendum to the CAP for approval by the Virginia Department of Education, which ultimately happened in March.

In addition to finding out how much of that money was spent on curriculum and professional development, Burgess was also interested to see how funds from the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds money had been spent. The QZAB is no-interest debt that the city has to pay back. Council approved the QZAB to help pay for technology and update buildings.

Back in the fall, council had asked the schools for an informal report on how those funds were spent, and that request was never responded to. Burgess made a motion to add a discussion to the agenda, but before the vote Ward 5’s Mary Hilliard wanted to see if Franklin City Public Schools Board Chair Edna King would elaborate on the topic. King had just walked in a few minutes late. She was there for the appointment of the at-large seat, which ultimately occurred after a 4-3 vote.

Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn told Hilliard that it was just a motion to discuss it as a body. After that comment, it passed unanimously.

Once they got to the discussion, Hilliard again invited King to speak.

“If you go online, prior to our meetings and look at the public section [of the school board’s agenda on BoardDocs], you will receive an itemized accounting of expenditures on the QZAB,” King said. “I think you did make a request that we give you a report relative to expenditures. I don’t know another way to indicate that, except what we get as a board. Do you want us to email expenditures?”

Johnson-Ashburn said she would appreciate such an email.

“For me, any actions that would affect what we have done as a funding body, I would really think that would help our communications and dialog if we do get direct communications from the school board,” the mayor said.

“Maybe there is a level of confusion,” King responded. “We were thinking if you go online, you would see it. It is there, if you want it.”

On the other hand, King said the board didn’t have a problem providing the information if council could suggest a preferred format.

Ward 4’s Mona Murphy wondered why council would make the school board go to that extra trouble.

“I think the school board has been transparent enough,” she said.

The mayor responded, “For a funding body that appropriates over $5 million, I think out of respect, we could get an email directly instead of having to go and look for it.”

Murphy replied, “I think out of respect for the school board, we can go on the web and look for it. She says it’s out there.”

Burgess said that what the school board is getting is how it is spent, but there’s no detail. For example, under a line item called continuing education that he made up on the spot, he said they may have something like $300,000 listed. Council may have provided $80,000 related to continuing education, but it’s all mingled together and you can’t specifically see what comes from where.

“It seems like big brother looking down our backs,” King said. “There’s a limited amount of trust.”

Ward 3’s Greg McLemore said he agreed with King to one extent. Council trusts the city’s funds to numerous departments. Why single out the school board?

“I don’t want to say it’s nitpicking, but I can understand how it’s tedious,” he said. “With budgets the size of the school board, they are always combining funds. Why are we asking for where the city money went, where previously we did not require such accountability?”

“We are not the ones paying it, the people out there are paying it,” Ward 6’s Frank Rabil said about taxpayers. “The funds were requested for something specific. We want to see that’s where it went. That’s not big brother watching over, that’s having a responsibility to taxpayers and making sure it is being expended correctly.”

McLemore replied, “I do support that concept, accountability. But we do it all the time. Tonight we allocated budget funds and moved salary funds to overtime, without knowing what the overtime was used for.”

McLemore was referring to the police department’s request to move funds around so that more money could be spent on overtime. Deputy Chief Robert Porti said the overtime was caused by having three vacancies in the department all year. Additionally, there were two absences due to medical leave and military deployment overseas. Council approved that request 6-1, with McLemore voting nay.

Rabil said the question was asked back in October, and the response was that the school board didn’t mind sharing. Council was just asking that it be done now.

City Manager Randy Martin said he would meet with the superintendent to come up with a format for reporting on the QZAB and the carryover funds.

The motion to request the information passed 6-1, with the Johnson-Ashburn voting nay.

“I will not support the motion because it was already cleared up that it will be done,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to make the motion, but I am in favor of getting the information.”