Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, December 12, 2013
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Kessler heads audit panel

Stuart Kessler, the former chair of the Monroe County School District's Audit and Finance Committee (AFC), was re-elected to the position Monday by a unanimous vote of the school board's five members.

There were no other contenders for the position.

Kessler has lately emerged as both a frequent public critic of the policies of Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter and a possible candidate for the District 1 board seat currently held by board Vice Chairman Robin Smith-Martin.

The former attorney hails from the Philadelphia area and previously served for 18 years on the board of the Colonial School District in Montgomery County, Pa. Twelve of those years were spent as the board's chair.

Kessler had previously served two one-year terms as chair of the AFC, beginning in December 2009, before making way for Roger McVeigh, who now reverts to being a regular committee member.

The committee's charter stipulates that chairs cannot serve for more than two consecutive terms.

Kessler's elevation comes at a time when the AFC has been wrestling with two important and ongoing audits, potentially worth millions to the school district.

The health care claims audit seeks to recover funds from claims made by employees to their health insurance policy; the postconstruction audit of the Horace O'Bryant School project aims to identify potential overpayments to the contractor, Coastal Construction Group of South Florida Inc.

Kessler on Wednesday stressed the scope of the challenges that lie ahead for the AFC.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," he said. "This is now my fourth year on this committee, and I had hoped to make the district a little bit more businesslike at this point. However, the major managerial deficiencies we see in play as the audits unfold are an indication of just how much more we have left to do."

Kessler pointed to the unanimous vote in favor of his leadership as an indication of the level of expertise he brings to the committee, but underscored his point that the committee itself can only do so much to change the culture and practices of the district.

"I've done this before," Kessler said, "and so the members have been looking to me for leadership in areas such as these audits. The health care claims audit, for example, is the first one this school district has ever performed.

"However, it's true that one can only do so much in the AFC. Some of the solutions remain on the political side. If the political side of the district, [the board], had taken the advice of the AFC over the years, I think we'd be further along with a lot of our goals."

Kessler's election comes the same week that Vice Chairman Bill Anderson announced to the board that the district's chosen auditor for the HOB audit, McGladrey LLP, was having difficulty recovering records from Coastal Construction that are needed to continue with the audit.

"It's a little up in the air because the auditor cannot obtain the information from [Coastal]," Anderson said at Tuesday night's meeting. "They're cooperating now."

Kessler, who has taken a keen interest in the audit, said that the issue of records recovery isn't a new one to him.

"I'm not surprised about this turn of events with Coastal," Kessler said. "Before the district agreed to do the audit, Capt. Ed (Davidson, District 3 board member) [and I] had been trying to do this as volunteers. We found the district stonewalled us on the documents we needed. When we finally did get them, we saw that they were in complete disarray. Then [the district hired] Steve Pribramsky to do an attestation, and he confirmed that the records were a mess. So now McGladrey has to rely on Coastal, because the district doesn't really have any records.

"This was a $36 million project, and if it's any indication of how the district does business, then it's a pretty bad indicator."

As far as the health care claims audit goes, Kessler said the AFC is "kind of in the middle" of a process that could yet yield significant returns to the district.

"When you have thousands of claims processed, like the district does, then you would expect a number of bureaucratic errors," Kessler said. "That's where we've identified about $200,000 in savings. However, there are two other areas, which we haven't looked into yet, which could also bring about significant savings. We'll be meeting with Silver and Associates, who are conducting the actual audit, at next month's AFC meeting to talk about this further."

Kessler's colleague Dan Dombroski said the election showed the depth of respect for the chairman.

"Stuart was elected unanimously, which speaks to the value and trust of his leadership from the board," Dombroski said. "I feel the same way."

As to the challenges facing the board in the future, Dombroski declined to comment, saying that he felt the committee should speak with "one voice."

However, he did say that he felt that the committee was "functioning very well."

"We're tackling a lot of issues, and we've seen improvement in the district in a lot of these areas," said Dombroski, who has been on the AFC for about one year.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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