Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, April 25, 2013
School Board shoots down recommendation for auditor

The School Board on Tuesday night dismissed member Ed Davidson's idea of hiring longtime School District volunteer Stuart Kessler as the district's internal auditor.

The issue, which was discussed but not voted on, generated the most heat of all the board business discussed at the meeting, held at Coral Shores High School.

Kessler, a former manager of the County Child Support Office, was "disbarred on consent" by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 2004. He also served for 12 years on a suburban Philadelphia school board, and as a regional director of the National School Board Association.

Since arriving in the Florida Keys, Kessler has served in a variety of public service positions including, most recently, volunteer chairman of the district's Audit and Finance Committee (AFC).

Earlier this month, Kessler spent a seven-hour day poring over the avalanche of contentious change orders related to the construction of the soon-to-be-completed Horace O'Bryant K-8 school, along with Davidson, who represents District 3, district lawyer Dirk Smits, and representatives of Coastal Construction Inc., the firm in charge of the HOB project.

Before discussing the idea of recruiting Kessler for a period not to exceed 18 months, and at half the wages of former finance chiefs Michael Kinneer, Ken Gentile, and current Director of Finance and Planning Jim Drake, Kessler was granted five minutes to discuss the all-day change orders meeting.

During his presentation, Kessler bemoaned what he called a "lack of documentation" relating to the orders, which could deliver savings to the district -- and extra cash to Coastal.

"[Davidson] and I ... were not able to find any of this documentation," Kessler stated. "Without the documentation, any reports would be based on fictitious numbers. You need to hire an auditor to make sure the contract terms were complied with. I'm imploring the board to do an appropriate review."

Following Kessler's presentation, the board discussed Davidson's suggestion that Kessler be put to work on the issue full time. "Are you saying we should hire another fill-time administrator?" District 1 member Robin Smith-Martin asked Davidson, tongue-in-cheek.

"I'm saying we need an internal auditor," Davidson shot back.

"It was a big mistake to let go of our internal auditor when we did ... . Without question, hundreds of thousands of dollars might be retrievable," he went on, referring to a previous audit of Coral Shores High School, initiated by former Superintendent John Padget, which netted the district nearly $1 million. That school was also built by Coastal Construction.

Davidson described Kessler as "The only guy who could hit the ground running, full-tilt ... . There's no point paying somebody to start from scratch."

The lack of enthusiasm for Davidson's proposal seemed to touch a nerve with the member, who then snapped, "It's a damn foolish economy if we don't address this situation as soon and possible. Somebody needs to do it. The board needs its own financial guy, to close out HOB, audit HOB and deal with all the findings in our own audit."

Smith-Martin voiced concern that Kessler had served on the Audit and Finance Committee when many of the issues that ended up in this year's audit took place.

"The AFC made some very compelling recommendations that weren't acted upon," Davidson replied.

As debate wound down, District 4 member John Dick said, "I still believe the super should be the one to decide who he wants to have working for him ... I think [newly hired Interim Director of Finance and Performance Jim] Drake is well-qualified to work on the audit. He'll know exactly what we need to do to solve the audit problems. ...

"I'm very reluctant" to start hiring people when teachers are saddled with furlough days, he said.

Smith-Martin agreed with Dick, calling for an "objective, outside audit," as did District 5 member Ron Martin, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Chairman Andy Griffiths, who was in Tallahassee on business.

"I want to go on record saying I think it's damned foolish not to hire somebody for $250 per day to work on this," Davidson said. "We're talking about enough money to buy back a bunch of furlough days. The last audit of Coral Shores turned out to be a good investment."

In other board business, the aforementioned Drake made his first appearance before the board on Tuesday, providing an update on budget negotiations going on in Tallahassee.

"We'll know more in the next few days," Drake said before reading from a prepared statement, distributed to other board members, that revealed the current Florida House proposal for student funding of $3,662.03 per child for the 2013-14 school year, an increase of $79.05 from last year. The Senate proposal is $3,736.40, an increase of $153.42. The final appropriation will be made public once the two bills have been reconciled.

On the subject of teacher salaries, Davidson said, "I don't see how we can possibly plan to cut another seven furlough days this year. People need some degree of hope and so forth.

"We should state that "worst case, we'll only consider 4-5 instead of 6-7," furlough days, he said, referring to the number of non-teacher (bus driver, cafeteria staff) furlough days, and teacher furloughs.

"Especially Veterans Day," Davidson added. "We have three combat veterans on the board here."

When discussion rolled around to the required response to a letter from the Legislature's Joint Auditing Committee, Davidson reminded the board members that they were "being asked to write a new and better explanation" for the recurring issues brought up in the Florida Auditor General's preliminary report on the district's 2012-13 finances.

"If they're not happy, they have the full authority to order the Department of Revenue ... to withhold funds."

The board also voted to approve the building of a restroom at Rex Weech Field -- minus an $80,000 concession stand that somehow had made its way into the plans. (Reference was made to another concession stand boondoggle, a $218,000 structure built without board authorization or knowledge at HOB.)

At one point, Martin became so vexed at Davidson's numerous queries that he snapped, "We don't need to have dialogue on every single item," implying there was no point debating issues if it wouldn't change any board member's votes.

Davidson replied, "This is what the voters elected me to do."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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