Missouri audit of Hickman Mills School District finds misspent funds, frivolous expenses

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Hickman Mills School District officials spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel to popular destinations, meals, flowers, bath products and other expenditures that were unnecessary or frivolous, according to a Missouri state audit released Tuesday.

Read the audit (PDF) .

The audit also said the board lacked oversight, held illegal meetings and sometimes failed to seek bids and obtain written contracts.

The board also failed to follow its own policies, did not track capital expenditures and often didn't have a good accounting of assets. More than half of 149 iPads for staff couldn't be accounted for over several months.

In its responses included with the audit, the district accepted many of the audit's findings. Those written responses also said changes are already occurring, a new superintendent Dennis Carpenter was recently hired as well as a new board president was appointed.

Thomas A. Schweich, Missouri state auditor, said in a letter to the district, that the audit was for fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 but was not limited to that time period.

Hickman Mills School District, once located in a thriving area, has watched over the years as businesses shuttered. Two of its biggest revenue generators, the former Bannister Mall and Hypermart, have been closed several years now.

Many of the district's schools qualify for Title I benefits, which mean at least 40 percent of a school's students are from families that meet the federal government's definition of low-income.

In September 2012, the district was downgraded to provisional accreditation for failing to meet a number of accreditation standards

Even as the district is struggling for money, it has accrued a liability of about $1.2 million for accrued sick, personal and vacation days, the audit said. In a separate situation, the district had to pay a former superintendent more than $180,000 in accrued benefits after she retired.

In addition some teachers are abusing sick leave, taking more than allowed, the audit said. That forces the district to pay substitutes.

During the review, district officials were not always forthcoming with auditors, the audit said.

For example, after the district refused to release records, Scheweich had to issue a subpoena for many of the documents discussed in the findings, the audit said. In addition, a former Board President Breman Anderson Jr. had to be deposed under oath to answer questions about a search to hire a superintendent.

The audit was critical of the way the district replaced former Superintendent Marjorie Williams who retired in June 2012.  The process the board used "was not conducted in a public manner, did not adhere to established Board policies or state laws, and was likely more costly than necessary," it said.

Interim superintendent Everlyn Williams, who was appointed to replace Marjorie Williams, was paid $150,000. She was eventually reassigned to assist an elementary school principal. Yet Everlyn Williams' salary of $150,000 remained the same even though it was $50,000 more than the principal's salary, the audit said

Travel

During fiscal year 2012, board members and employees traveled to popular destinations including Alexandria, VA., Charlotte, North Carolina, Phoenix, Knoxville, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Las Vegas, Huston and Boston. They also traveled to Anaheim, Huntington Beach and Dana Point, Calif.

The district spent about $65,000 for travel over three years, the audit found.

In April 2012, seven board members, Everlyn Williams and a former board secretary traveled to Boston to the National School Board Association conference. The cost to the district for the travel was $26,000 or about $3,000 per person. The expenditures included about $1,500 for three rental cars for travel in Boston even though the attendees were staying in the same hotel as the conference, the audit said.

In addition, the conference training sessions weren't always well-attended by some of the Hickman Mills officials. 

Former Board President Breman Anderson Jr. only attended one session of training for less than 56 minutes, the audit found. Another board member, Bonnaye Mims only attended two sessions.  Other members attended from five to nine sessions.

Former Superintendent Marjorie Williams traveled widely during her last school year, attending training sessions from coast-to-coast, the audit said. Two of her out of state training sessions occurred during her last month of employment with the district.

Expenditures not allowed by policy or 'unreasonable'

Some expenditures that the district made are not allowable under district policy or appear unreasonable using a procurement card, which is restricted to purchasing educational items. They included:

*     Tickets for

the circle parking garage at Kansas City International Airport. Three employees parked there 11 times for $794 rather than using the much cheaper satellite parking lot.
*     Flower and plant purchases for $682 .
*     Bath products that cost $80 for a gift for an administrative assistant.
*     iPad accessory purchases for seven people for $900.

The audit listed what it called questionable expenditures, disbursements for events that did not have a clear school district or educational purpose. In some cases the district did not have clear documentation that staff or students attended the event. Some events included:

*     $720 for the AdHoc Group Against Crime President's birthday party;
*     $250 to the Alpha Kappa Alpha debutante ball fundraiser for an advertisement in its brochure for the former board Secretary's daughter. Staff told auditors that the board president instructed staff to write the $250 and have it ready for him to pick it up. Several board members said they were unaware of the expenditure.
*     Several thousands of dollars was used from federal Title I funds that the audit said was restricted for improving the education of disadvantaged children and the expenditures appeared improper. They included $1,000 for 50 parent registration fees for a charitable walk/run in May 2012. In addition, $7,500 was spent to purchase a booth and sponsorship at the Kansas City Black Expo. Of that amount, $5,000 was Title I funds.

The audit said records were poor, so it was unknown how many disadvantaged students were contacted at the Expo or who used the VIP passes.

It was difficult to determine how many iPads the district owned. After much research, auditors performed an inventory test and determined the staff had at least 149 purchased iPads, but could only locate 83. Auditors were told at many schools that teachers did not have their iPads with them when they visited. But even though they made multiple visits to the school, the iPads were not found. Finally the district was able to locate 58 of the 66 missing iPads.

The district did not always comply with the state's Sunshine Law and held numerous improper meetings out of the public's view. The board discussed topics in those meetings that is prohibited by law and voted on and approved contracts in closed meetings and then did not reveal those decisions to the public.

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