Former IWCS superintendent calls for Cramer’s resignation, criminal investigation of deficit

Published 4:24 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

Isle of Wight County Schools’ former superintendent, Jim Thornton, is calling for the resignation of his successor, Theo Cramer, over the latter’s handling of the school division’s deficit.

Theo Cramer

Thornton, who retired in 2022 after serving in Cramer’s role for seven years, contends in a Sept. 18 letter to The Smithfield Times that Cramer has repeatedly made “false statements” to elected officials concerning the shortfall.

Cramer declined to comment on his predecessor’s remarks.

Thornton’s letter also chides the county’s School Board for not holding Cramer responsible, contending Cramer’s actions constitute “a crime in Virginia.”

​​Virginia law prohibits school boards from spending in excess of funds “available for school purposes” for the fiscal year without the consent of the governing body or bodies tasked with funding the school division, which in this case is the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors. Any member of a school board, division superintendent or other school officer “violating, causing to be violated or voting to violate any provision of this section shall be guilty of malfeasance in office,” states Virginia Code 22.1-91.

Cramer told the School Board last month that Isle of Wight had ended its 2022-23 school year more than $600,000 in the red, of which $438,506 remained as of Sept. 14. Cramer blamed overspending on wages for bus drivers and substitute teachers, coupled with a reduction in state funding, for the deficit.

The School Board, in early 2022, voted to raise the minimum pay for bus drivers to $20 per hour, and the minimum for bus assistants to $15 per hour, planning to fund the raises for the then-remaining six months of the 2021-22 school year with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds the division had received from a federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Cramer in August said a non-ESSER funding source was never identified to continue the raises into the 2022-23 school year, though Thornton and the division’s former chief financial officer, Steve Kepnes, have each disputed the allegation.

Thornton accuses Cramer of having “demonstrated very little character” and of continuing to “deliver false information to the public and his School Board, which either does not know how to check or is blindly following their superintendent who overspent a budget, which is criminal.”

“Hopefully, the commonwealth’s attorney will investigate the possible fraud that Dr. Cramer tried to perpetrate on the taxpaying citizens of Isle of Wight County,” Thornton writes.

Thornton’s letter contends that many of Cramer’s claims “can easily be proven false” by comparing the current and prior school years’ budgets, both of which are available on Isle of Wight County Schools’ website.

According to Isle of Wight’s budgets for the two previous school years, the division allocated $3.9 million to its transportation department at the start of 2021-22, and by year’s end had increased the department’s budget to $4.2 million.

The $294,000, or 7.6%, increase roughly correlates to the $224,000 Todd Christiansen, the division’s director of support services, had estimated in January 2022 as the cost of the raises for the then-remaining six months of the 2021-22 school year.

By the start of 2022-23, the transportation department’s budget had grown to $4.3 million, or roughly $450,000 above the $3.9 million budgeted at the start of the prior year. This too roughly correlates with the $447,000 Christiansen estimated would be needed to continue the raises into the 2022-23 school year.

When Thornton presented his proposed 2022-23 budget to the School Board on Feb. 10, 2022, he highlighted a $432,736 increase tied specifically to transportation department salaries. Thornton, in a Sept. 19 email to the Times, contends the money was to come from state funds rather than ESSER, and was still included when the School Board approved last year’s budget in May 2022.

Thornton’s letter calls Cramer’s assertion of having shaved $540,000 off an originally $2.2 million deficit in March by deferring the purchase of four school buses a “flat out lie.”

A May 12, 2022, draft of the division’s then-proposed 2022-23 budget had included a line-by-line breakdown of transportation expenses that left blank lines for capital replacement of vehicles and capitalized lease payments. Larisa Harris, whom Cramer hired in February as the division’s chief financial officer, asserted Isle of Wight’s longstanding practice has been to use leftover funds during school years that ended in a surplus to fund new buses, and that the division hasn’t included the purchases as a line in its budget since the 2016-17 school year.

That’s “another easily proven lie,” Thornton’s letter contends.

According to past budgets for school years ending in 2021, 2020 and 2019, capitalized lease payments for transportation were budgeted at just over $600,000 each year.

“In fact, in my seven years as superintendent, I never remember buying any buses with year-end funds,” Thornton wrote.

Transportation salaries may still be underfunded, despite a sizable increase to the department’s budget for the current school year.

When Cramer presented the School Board with the first draft of his proposed budget for 2023-24 in February, it called for a $6 million allocation, or 39% increase, for transportation. Only $5 million made it into the version the School Board adopted on March 22, reflecting a roughly $650,000, or 14%, increase over the $4.3 million budgeted last year.

According to line-by-line breakdowns of the department’s expenses in the current and prior years’ budgets, roughly $1.3 million was budgeted for both years for regular driver wages.

The exact amount, listed at $1,310,053, is actually a $380 decrease from the $1,310,433 allocated for driver wages in the 2022-23 budget during Thornton’s tenure, though the line-by-line breakdown included in the current year’s budget lists the year-to-year change at zero dollars.