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Trustees mull new rules for use of activity funds / February 19, 2014

The Mecklenburg County School Board got their first look Monday at a new policy manual to govern the use of student activity funds, which drew scrutiny last year from local auditors who found the money was not being used for student-related activities as required by the Virginia Department of Education.

Trustees were given an opportunity to review a new policy manual at their monthly meeting on Monday, but took no additional action.

The manual, assembled by financial management specialist Donna Garner, is a response to a 2013 fiscal audit by Creedle Jones & Alga in South Hill that found “several areas of weakness and exceptions to established accounting and internal control policies” by the Central Office in its handling of student activity funds at various schools around the county.

Among the deficiencies that the policy manual aims to correct is protection for whistleblowers who in good faith may report what they believe to be illegal activity or misuse of school division assets.

As written, the policy follows the auditor’s recommendation that employees who are aware of possible wrongdoing should be encouraged to disclose that information to appropriate parties, and also should be “protected from adverse employment consequences” when providing information, as suggested in the auditors’ report.

The policy echoes the official position of the Virginia Department of Education that student activity funds exist to take in revenue from extracurricular activities such as athletic outings, club dues and any other activity involving students, staff or facilities. Disbursements should be “solely in accordance with the purpose for which such funds are collected,” according to the DOE.

During FY-2013, the Central Office disbursed cash from the funds to pay for items not included in the state guidelines, including furnishings and employee compensation. In some instances, school-level accounts were used as conduits by the Central Office to acquire new classroom seats and desks, with individual schools making the purchases and later receiving reimbursements out of the activity funds.

This new policy, however, does not take away the flexibility that Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton says is necessary to meet school needs. The policy allows that the student funds should not be restricted for use for some specified purpose and “can be used to meet a broad range of the local school needs.”

The policy sanctions the practice of using the student activity fund to pay for capital assets, including furnishings. It does place an absolute restriction on the use of student activities money to pay for salary advances to coaches — a past practice by the school division that was flagged by the Creedle Jones & Alga auditors.

The new policy makes clear that all stipends for coaches will be paid directly by the central office, without resorting to the activity funds.

The policy also encourages bulk purchasing of goods, with the resulting potential for savings, rather than using the funds to split up purchases on a school-by-school basis, which tend to skirt procurement rules for large purchases. However, the policy allows flexibility on this score.

At the conclusion of Garner’s presentation, trustee Glenn Edwards asked if there previously existed a manual or set of policies governing the use of Student Activities Funds. Garner said there was only a draft policy.

Before voting on the new manual at the next meeting, Edwards and fellow trustee Dale Sturdifen asked to have a representative from Creedle Jones & Alga officially present the audit findings to the Board and the public — which would mark the first time the audit results will be aired at a public meeting. They also asked to have a representative from Brown Edwards discuss their subsequent audit of the student activity funds.

The Brown Edwards firm was hired by the school board after Creedle Jones & Alga issued its critical audit. Their findings, like the findings of Creedle Jones & Alga, were never presented to the school board nor to the public.

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