Paper chase: Schools’ printing costs add up District takes look at why it’s again on track to overspend by nearly $900K in that area

While Charleston Progressive Academy was under construction in 2013, students met at another school’s campus in North Charleston. When the new building opened, the district failed to transfer the printer account numbers at the school’s temporary home, leading to some outrageous-looking printing costs at the new school.

For eighth-grade English teacher Jody Stallings, the rules of printing at Moultrie Middle School are fairly cut and dried:

He gets 5,000 sheets of paper at the beginning of every semester to use for tests, reading materials and any other hard copies he might need. When his stack runs out, he can either make do or borrow paper from another teacher.

For the Charleston County School District as a whole, however, the rules are not always as clear, or as easily enforced.

For the second school year in a row, CCSD is on track to overspend its printing and binding budget by nearly $900,000 unless district leaders take corrective action.

Printing costs are just one piece of a puzzle district leaders and an external auditor are trying to solve as they investigate an $18 million budget shortfall from last school year that went undiscovered until this fall.

Other major areas of overspending included staff salaries, charter school payments and massive IRS fines for late filing of paperwork.

Since discovering a projected $6.4 million budget shortfall for the current school year, district finance officials have been reviewing policies and meeting with printing vendor Ricoh to look for cost-cutting options before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Interim Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman, who stepped in after CFO Michael Bobby resigned in November, said the causes of the printing overages include poor budgeting decisions at the district level and a lack of tools to monitor printing costs at the school level.

“The problem we had with all these other budget items, this (printing overage) is another one of those symptoms of that: We have simply not attended to it and budgeted realistically,” Stiegman said. “We do need to hold everybody out there accountable, but I don’t think some of these principals are completely to blame for what happened at their schools.”

CCSD’s biggest overspender on printing last year appeared to be Charleston Progressive Academy, which was budgeted $8,080 but spent more than $28,000. A downtown school serving early childhood through sixth-grade students, CPA is projected to be more than $3,000 over budget for the current school year, according to district data.

When Stiegman asked Principal Wanda Wright-Sheats about the overexpenditures, he found out she had no idea the school was over its printing budget.

Then Stiegman discovered a major problem: CPA was being charged for another school’s printing expenses.

CPA previously held classes inside the building now used for North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary while its new Meeting Street campus was under construction. When CPA moved to its permanent home in the fall of 2013, the district failed to transfer the old printer account numbers to North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary, meaning that CPA was effectively on the hook for two elementary schools’ worth of printing costs.

It also turns out that most principals in the district do not have a way to monitor their own schools’ printing expenses for the year, according to Stiegman. Ricoh employees check the meters on printers and copiers regularly, but the principals never receive reports on their own spending.

Technically, principals could access up-to-date printing expenditure figures through a districtwide bookkeeping application called MUNIS, but most principals don’t know how to use the complex system, according to Stiegman.

“We’ve been lacking in the training, and a lot of these administrators don’t know how it works,” he said.

Other major printing overexpenditures in 2014-15 took place at Stall High ($19,100 over budget), Laurel Hill Primary ($18,600 over budget) and Military Magnet Academy ($16,100 over budget).

But it was the Board of Trustees, which approved its own printing budget as well as all the schools’, that last year overspent the most as a percentage of its budget allocation. The school board set aside $3,000 for printing costs in 2014-15 but ended up spending just over $12,700 — 424 percent of its budget.

“Were we advised that we were overspending? No,” said Tom Ducker, a member of the board’s Audit and Finance Committee. “We didn’t have the systems in place to monitor the spending.”

“It’s a comedy of errors, but there’s really nothing funny about it,” he added.

The rules for printing in CCSD vary from school to school, but overall, the district allocates a flat $20 per pupil to the schools for printing costs across all grade levels. Stiegman said his office is working on adjusting that formula, for starters.

“I think that’s probably a flaw because different schools use different amounts of copying paper and supplies based on the kids there,” Stiegman said. “Elementary kids take a lot of paper home with them to show mom and dad what they do.”

Another problem: In addition to paying for equipment and services from Ricoh, the district contracted Ricoh to run a print shop and courier service for districtwide printing needs last school year. Stiegman said district leaders failed to budget accordingly, lumping the cost in with other districtwide printing costs and actually decreasing the overall printing budget slightly from $1.89 million in 2013-14 to $1.79 million in 2014-15. (The printing budget had previously been creeping steadily upward from $1.5 million in 2009-10).

At the classroom level, Stallings — also director of the teachers’ advocacy group Charleston Teacher Alliance — said he has heard few complaints about printing limits. “Most teachers find the restrictions reasonable,” he said. School board member Todd Garrett said at a recent Audit and Finance Committee meeting that he had heard reports from a district employee of teachers using district printers to run off copies of church bulletins and wedding invitations. Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, who was hired in July, said at the meeting that the district had already sent out an email warning to teachers not to print personal items on the public dime.

But after reviewing the ledgers for the past and current year, Stiegman said he does not believe abuse of printing privileges is a major part of the problem.

“The issue is not people going wild out there printing,” Stiegman said. “It’s more about how we structure, how we control it and how we manage it.”

Ricoh did not respond to a request for comment.