Miami Herald: Watchdogs urge Broward school district to act quicker over audits
Oct 22, 2009
The Miami Herald published this article on October 22, 2009
The Broward school district’s audit watchdogs say administrators need to take quicker action to address issues raised in worrisome audits.
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
Broward schools are keeping better track of big-ticket items, but there are still gaffes the district needs to deal with more quickly, the head of the school district’s audit committee told School Board members Tuesday.
Over the past 18 months, audits have revealed that:
- The district overpaid AshBritt and another contractor some $765,000 for classroom repairs after Hurricane Wilma;
- Several schools lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory — including, in one case, several hundred computers, a treadmill and a tractor;
- A bus facility in Pembroke Pines has taken more than eight years and $12 million to complete — instead of about one year and $4 million.
How the district does business has moved the audits to the forefront following last month’s arrest of suspended School Board member Beverly Gallagher in a federal corruption probe involving the district’s construction program. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators have questioned board members about Ron Book, AshBritt’s lobbyist before the Broward County Commission but not the school district. And federal authorities have subpoenaed thousands of records pertaining to the AshBritt audit, which came out in July to much controversy.
A draft copy of the report was released before construction staff had a chance to respond to auditors’ comments — including that AshBritt and C & B Services, which was not licensed to work in Florida, may have falsified some bills and engaged in fraud or collusion. AshBritt, of Pompano Beach, has denied wrongdoing, and the board has since changed its rules to prohibit draft audits from being made public.
`THIS HAS TO STOP’
At a board meeting Tuesday, Henry Mack, chairman emeritus of the audit committee, chastised School Board members for criticizing the auditors’ tone in the report — and for focusing more on how the draft was leaked than how to recover the $765,000.
“This, to me, has to stop,” Mack said. “Your internal auditing department is your eyes and ears, and trust me when I say that everything they do is in your best interest. We are not `gotcha’ folks.”
Board members asked questions and said they would continue discussing AshBritt and the role of audits in general at a workshop meeting next Tuesday.
“I don’t want to point fingers,” School Board member Bob Parks said. “What I like to do is look for solutions.”
He asked that reports list more ways to solve problems and more staff responses. Mack replied: “The issue that you raise is precisely what you have been getting for the past 12, 13 years.”
The sparring highlighted the testy relationship between the district and some auditors and audit committee members — a rift that Superintendent Jim Notter has said has also divided the district’s auditing and construction departments.
“We don’t put little Lego people that all look alike and think alike on the team,” Notter said. “It keeps you on your mark.”
Mack pressed the district to inspect roof work done by AshBritt and C & B. Some of those inspections have been pending since the 2005 hurricane, though staff said after the audit came out that they were making them a priority.
There are other worries unrelated to AshBritt, like delays in construction projects. The audit committee, which is made up of community experts who do not work for the district, has also repeatedly raised questions about projects that do not get re-bid after their scope changes — for example, the addition of lights and a concession stand to a new athletic field project.
The committee’s biggest concern for the upcoming year is that schools account for pricey equipment, Mack said. In the past year, audits at 179 schools identified more than $153 million of lost stuff, he added.
A batch of school property audits raised eyebrows in August, when Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes was found to have lost items worth $556,228, including a few hundred computers, a treadmill valued at more than $7,000, two lawn mowers, musical instruments and a John Deere tractor worth more than $6,000. McFatter Technical Center in Davie had lost $783,356. (Subsequent reports of other schools have been less alarming.)
To prevent theft and lost equipment, auditors have said principals should be more involved in taking inventory. Audit committee members want laptops to get tracking and recovery systems or software designed to make computers stop working if they get stolen.
There was some good news: Losses at schools used to be much worse, according to auditors. Mack said 58 percent of schools audited in the past year did not have any problems. That’s up 23 percent from the previous year, he added — though usually different schools get audited each year.
“That’s an outstanding achievement,” Mack said.
The audit committee will take up a new bunch of school property audits at its monthly meeting Thursday. Members will also discuss the bus facility, which Mack said has not been completed after 8.5 years — a period of time he called “unacceptable.”
Michael Garretson, the district’s construction chief, said later Tuesday that construction on the facility didn’t begin until 2005 — and that the project has grown from a parking lot to including a couple of new offices.
“It has been re-bid each time there has been an addition to it,” he said.
Chief operations officer Donnie Carter added that buses have been refueling for almost two years at the site, which is tentatively scheduled to be completed by April 2010.
The main issue, Mack said earlier, was that district staff quickly respond to audit suggestions.
Said Mack: “We’re tired of waiting.”