Series of events led to BOE budget deficit

By TAYLOR MURCHISON-GALLAGHER

STAFF WRITER

Accounting firm Blum Shapiro presented a forensic audit of the Board of Education to the Board of Finance on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The City of Bristol commissioned the audit after the BOE experienced year-end deficits for school years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017.

Blum Shapiro partner, Jeff Ziplow, and project management professional manager, Lindsey Donato, began their presentation by saying that once the information had been analyzed, they did not find evidence of acts of fraud or embezzlement.

Information from the last five years was gathered through interviews with over 30 people, including city officials and board members; by reading minutes of BOE meetings; and, by scanning the emails of previous business managers (there have been several during the inspected timeframe).

Ziplow said that there was no one problem or person that contributed to the deficit, but rather, a “series of events.” He also recommended that this report be used as a jumping off point for better communication between the BOF, BOE, and the city, saying that Bristol now has “transformational leadership” with the additions of a new mayor, superintenden,t and comptroller.

One of the areas with the most concern was the special education portion of the budget. Special education stood as three separate “findings” outlined in the report. Ziplow stated Bristol is not unique in their struggle of budgeting Special Education funding, saying that those funds are “money that, essentially, the city has no control over.”

The first finding related to special education was that “the [school] district does not have a formalized contract of services to be provided by vendors for every special education student.” The report states that this is problematic because “without an agreed upon contract, the school district has no documented terms in regards to invoice regularity and timing and therefore, is subject to the vendor’s discretion.”  Blum Shapiro recommends having a contract for every special education student in order to keep a record of what services each student requires, and thus can track the costs more effectively and in a more timely fashion.

In regards to the next finding, “Evaluation and Analysis of Special Education Invoices”, Blum Shapiro recommends that the district hire a special education accountant. The report states that the duties of this person would include the contracts of each special education student, ensuring the required services and costs “align with contracts and student enrollment”, and that they would be responsible for monitoring all of the costs associated with special education.

Finally, Blum Shapiro identified a lack of transparency and communication between the school business office and special education department. They recommended having monthly meetings to share “expenditures, enrollment changes and to jointly monitor the budget against MTD/YTD (month-to-date/year-to-date) expenditures.” These meetings should include the director of special services, the business office manager, and the accounting supervisor.

For the other identified problems, Blum Shapiro offered a number of recommendations to help avoid similar situations in the future. Better communication between departments and boards was mentioned more than once.

“I think that you [Ziplow] set a very appropriate tone about moving ahead,” said Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, “with what has a been a very thoughtful and thought provoking process in terms of how to bring us closer together.”

Donato said that there were a number of  “warning signs” leading up to the deficit and that with the proper training, those signs could have been monitored and addressed. The summary recommended making “training available to BOE members” in order for them to “better understand financial reports and operations”, in the hopes that they would be better able to “detect trends and forecasts from year to year.”

Other recommended actions include having the directors and or managers of departments compile, formally document, and provide the BOE and BOE Finance Committee with a summary of goals, objectives and budgets; having the department heads involved in BOE and BOE Finance meetings; and the full utilization of the MUNIS Enterprise Resource Planning software.

It should be noted that the City of Bristol also uses MUNIS, and that Blum Shapiro recommended that both, the BOE and the city, take MUNIS training courses, in order to get the most use out of the software. It was also suggested, by BOF member Orlando Calfe that the city and BOE invest in training a specific individual on the MUNIS software in a sort of “train-the-trainer” program, so that there will always be an available person to answer questions and to train new staff members.

Cheryl Thibeault, chair of the BOF, thanked Ziplow, Donato and Blum Shapiro for their work as well as the cooperation between the BOE and comptroller’s office, in order to complete the study. “I think the overarching goal is transparency and good communication between the different parties involved so that everybody knows what we’re looking at and how it impacts the city.”

Superintendent Sue Moreau said the BOE has already begun to implement many of the recommendations made by Blum Shapiro. She said the BOE is already collaborating with the city, and hopes that the BOF and city will participate in training programs with the BOE. “We just want to have the best education for the kids in Bristol,” said Moreau.

A copy of the audit report will be made public online.