Council grills school board chairwoman over deficit

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On Monday, Franklin’s city council voted unanimously to expand their audit of the school board after questioning chairwoman Dr. Andrea Hall-Leonard at length with regard to her awareness of and involvement in the school district’s deficit of approximately $480,000 for Fiscal Year 2015-16.

According to Hall-Leonard, Supt. Dr. Willie J. Bell sent a letter dated Oct. 21 to City Manager Randy Martin, with an attached statement from the school board’s attorney explaining the deficit and a plan of action to correct the error, which requests the council re-appropriate the $494,643 in carryover funds from Franklin Public Schools’ 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years.

This letter comes as a revised version of another letter Bell sent to Martin dated Oct. 7, which explained the deficit as the result of a clerical error by a new finance employee, and requested $481,444.14. The new letter cites unrealized refunds and charitable contributions the district has received in past years, but did not receive this year, as the main cause of the deficit, and makes no mention of clerical errors.

According to Martin, the requested carryover funds were allocated to Franklin Public Schools during the past two academic years, but reverted to the control of city council after going unspent.

“We are aware of the concerns in reference to the finances and budget, and so we want you to know we are also concerned as a board and are working to try and rectify,” Hall-Leonard said during questioning by the council. “I believe that both the city and the board need to work collaboratively. We as a school board don’t want to lose focus on academics so we get all our schools accredited, but we want to make sure we are also fiscally sound. I stand here on behalf of the board to ask for grace as we all try to work together.”

Several members of council and numerous residents who had spoken out against the school board earlier that evening during citizens’ time felt disinclined to grant her request for grace and understanding.

“How can the superintendent not know where his budget stands?” asked Anne Williams, a Franklin resident, during citizens’ time, and suggested approving the funds only with the condition that council remove Bell from office.

Franklin residents Jim Strozier and Bobby Tyler also spoke out against the school system, with Tyler suggesting council examine the school’s expenses for hotels, air fare, meals and other amenities.

“We spent $9,000 for a field trip,” he said.

“Y’all didn’t do your job, plain and simple,” said Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham, with several members of the audience applauding. “We came to you and talked about internal controls; they were minor internal controls, but they were very important internal controls. Internal controls means you have things in place that catch problems before they come along in accounting.

“First, we get a letter from you at the beginning of the year saying you had messed up on payroll. If you had good internal controls and good accounting, and good reporting to the board, that would have stuck out like a sore thumb and would not have gone this long. You didn’t get $95,000 from a charitable contribution. Did y’all make cuts to make up for that money at that time? Was that $95,000 contribution, when it was not given, and you were told that it was not going to be given, did y’all make cuts, and the answer is no, I can see it on your face.

“I’m very happy we did not give this $480,000 when you first started asking. That would have cost this city a million. I have no faith in any of these numbers.”

Hall-Leonard explained that, at the time the deficit was reported, she and the board did not know what internal controls were supposed to be in place.

“You can’t fix something that you’re not aware of,” she said.

“What you missed prior to your arrival was a few citizens spoke, and it’s very, very, very intense,” Councilman Greg McLemore said to Hall-Leonard. “They’re calling for people to be removed and resign, and I’m inclined to think that this council would pretty much go in favor of something of that nature.

“This is a really hard position for me to take, because I support you. You’re a constituent of my Ward. I supported you highly for chairman, and I expect somebody to come up with some concrete answers and tell us this money ain’t missing, and if it is missing, man, I’m so disappointed.”

“I would request that you change your statement when you said you were not aware of internal control problems,” Councilman Brenton “Benny” Burgess said to Hall-Leonard. “You were aware because our auditor told you. You were not believing, and that’s a huge difference.”

The council did not vote on whether to heed Bell’s request for funding in his most recent letter, and has no plans to pursue removal of any personnel from the school board or superintendent’s office at this time. The council concluded by going into closed session to discuss legal matters.

In other business:

• The council voted unanimously to proclaim Nov. 3 as Arbor Day within the city; and to pass budget amendment number 2017-03, which authorized $8,336 in carryover funds from the Planning and Community Development’s Gateway Enhancement to be applied to the Gateway Enhancement’s 16-17 budget.

• With the exception of Councilman Donald “Bill” Scarboro, who excused himself due to a potential conflict of interest, the council also voted unanimously to reduce its share of the machinery and tools tax on ST Tissue by a total of 50 percent over five years. Isle of Wight County reduced its machinery and tools tax on ST Tissue as part of its own economic development incentive last week.

• Non-school board related citizens’ time speakers included Dan Howe of the Downtown Franklin Association, who announced two grants DFA has been awarded: the $60,000 CBL grant for startup businesses and a $5,000 grant from Virginia Main Street Improvement program, intended for murals;

• Dr. Sharon Sheffield of Western Tidewater Free Clinic and Angela Futrell of Southeastern Virginia Health System, both thanked the council for their support of each community health initiative.

However, the majority of the meeting was devoted to the ongoing issues with the school district’s deficit.