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Testy Mecklenburg trustees spar over finances

SoVaNow.com / July 17, 2013
The acriminous tone of recent Mecklenburg County School Board meetings continued Monday night as trustees argued over everything from whether to create a finance committee to who has and has not read the budget.

The spat over formation of a finance committee pitted trustees Sandra Tanner and Joan Wagstaff against Dale Sturdifen, who suggested the board needs such a panel.

Sturdifen began his push for a finance committee after it was revealed last month that the school division had underspent its annual budget by nearly $600,000, but overspent on electricity costs by nearly $23,000.

Trustee Glenn Edwards backed Sturfifen’s proposal by asking why, if the school budget had a surplus of $600,000 at the end of fiscal year 2012/3013, the Bluestone High School robotics program was not funded. In prior years, the program received $10,000, Edwards noted.

He also questioned why band programs at both Bluestone and Park View High Schools were not given additional funds for travel, instruments, and uniforms. Edwards suggested that a finance committee would have known about the electricity overpayments and recommended ways to redirect funds instead of returning them to the Board of Supervisors.

This brought a sharp retort from Wagstaff, who accused Edwards of not reading the budget. She said that, in fact, robotics did receive $10,000 for the 2013-14 fiscal year. That brought an interjection from Superintendent of Schools James Thornton, who conceded the program was not funded because no one had requested money for robotics.

David Alga with the accounting firm of Creedle, Alga & Jones, the firm that regularly audits the books for Mecklenburg County, offered his view that by creating a finance committee, the School Board would be freed up to focus on their main function of “educating the children” instead of just money matters. Alga agreed that every Board member should be informed about school spending, but that should not be their main focus.

Repeating her opposition to a finance committee, Wagstaff explained that the reason she would prefer to have all financial matters addressed by the board is because “the word on the street” is that she is being accused of misappropriating money. She added that this is something that is just not true, since each month the board, as a whole, approves all spending decisions.

It was trustee Debra Smiley who finally cut off the argument by asking Alga, “So all you are saying is that a finance committee is a best practice, not something that is mandatory?”

“Correct,” said Alga.

Before moving on, board members asked Thornton to meet with Alga and the schools’ finance director, Donna Garner, who is also a CPA, to formulate a recommendation regarding the need for such a committee and the parameters under which it would operate if created.

In other business, Chairman Robert Puryear questioned why the Board spent $5,500 for the Senior of the Month banquet . “I thought it was paid for by the Mecklenburg County Business Education Partnership [MCBEP],” Puryear asked. Thornton explained that MCBEP only paid for the dinner and as many of the $500 scholarships given to each student as their money would allow. It was the School Board’s responsibility to provide any additional funds needed to ensure that each student “received at least $500.”

Cameron Hawkins was named student liaison to the school board representing Park View High School for the 2013/2014 school year. She will be joined by Davon Moody, representing Bluestone High School. In addition to their liaison duties, both Hawkins and Moody are active members of their class. Hawkins will be the Vice President of Park View’s student government, and Moody will serve as both President of his class and of the Future Business Leaders of America club.

Dottie Thaxton, Elaine and Joe Senz, Louise Smith, Damascus Ford, and Clarksville Elementary School guidance counselor Beverly Baugh were recognized for establishing a program to feed 100 Clarksville Elementary students each week, who live in food insecure homes.

Michael Duncan, Deputy Director with the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, offered an overview of their role in Southside Virginia. After conceding that the Institute has fallen short of its mission to support all of Southside Virginia, including Mecklenburg County, Duncan said, “We’re here to help.”

Specifically, he said he wanted to inform the school about two paid internship programs open to students and teachers of Mecklenburg County public schools, both of which were developed to stimulate interest and learning in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] related subjects.

While the programs are closed for this summer, Duncan promised to work more closely with Mecklenburg County next year and beyond, hoping to recruit students and teachers from the county into the Institute’s programs.

He also offered to make available to the schools the Institute’s STEM mobile lab — its travelling laboratory.

Board members agreed to move forward with plans to implement a mandatory drug testing program for all athletes in the Mecklenburg County Public Schools. Trustees are also considering whether to ask athletes to sign a pledge indicating they will not use alcohol, tobacco, or other illegal or synthetic drugs during the season.

Robert Tucker, who is overseeing the school’s energy management program reported that, during the first ten months of the 2012/2013 fiscal year, Mecklenburg County Public Schools reduced their energy costs by nearly $18,000 over the prior year. As a result, the school district was awarded a certificate of environmental stewardship by Cenergistic, the consulting firm hired to implement the energy savings program.

Board members had few questions for Tucker since they were told last month that finance director Donna Garner was conducting an independent audit of the energy expenditures. Her report will not be available for at least another month.

Tucker said as he and Cenergistic move forward with the program, they are looking into installing several additional energy savings devices including transitional lighting controls and occupied thermostat controls.

Edwards repeated his ongoing objections to paying Cenergistic for a program that both Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and Dominion Virginia Power will provide, for free, to the school system.

During board member comments, Edwards expressed his displeasure with a decision made to dismantle the weight room at Bluestone High School in favor of a room for yoga classes. The weight room is, according to Edwards, being moved into the dirty, greasy space that previously housed the school’s auto mechanics program.

Edwards said, “This is a personal thing with me. Bluestone High School did not have a weight room. So Ronnie Owen and I built a weight room with donated labor and provided the weights and equipment at a cost of $50,000.” He told Thornton and the board that future donations might be in jeopardy “if this is how gifts will be treated. I suggest you look at it more closely.”

Finally, Edwards questioned why parents were required to “get $150 to $200 of material for their children to bring to school. I understand the need for basic items, but this list [he said referring to a page long detailed list] is too much. What if it’s a low income parent with four kids? They can’t afford this.”

Sandra Tanner concurred, by no action was taken by the School Board.

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