CCSD needs Finance 101

Michael Bobby, Charleston County School District’s Chief Financial Officer, resigned. (Staff/File)

When Gerrita Postlewait took over as superintendent of the Charleston County School District in July, she alluded to likely personnel changes. It looks as if she’ll have to start with people who handle the district’s money, and their supervisors. And those adjustments need to be made immediately.

At the Charleston County School Board’s Dec. 14 meeting, the superintendent is expected to recommend budget cuts and policy changes to answer a stinging audit that revealed staff throughout the system liberally spent money it didn’t have. The $18 million total shortfall included $8.75 million that staff knew — or should have known — was not budgeted for and spent anyway, and another $9.36 million due to the finance department far overestimating the amount it would receive from property taxes.

Even though some of those over-expenditures were for worthy programs (teachers for special needs classes, nurses and substitute teachers), there is no excuse for mishandling the public’s money.

Further, some of the district’s shortfall was preventable. In 2014, the district paid a $500,000 penalty for failing to file W-2s on time in 2011. And it now faces another penalty for late filings in 2012. Ordinary people understand tax deadlines. It’s stunning that paid professionals fail to meet deadlines once, much less twice. What a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The public would have every right to be angry if the district’s students lose resources as a result of financial mismanagement and inadequate oversight.

Meanwhile, the district’s books are to being subjected to a forensic audit that will determine if the problem is more than mismanagement.

Dr. Postlewait, who inherited these problems, should clarify the situation when possible and make sure that those responsible are being held accountable.

Mike Bobby resigned as chief financial officer last week during a school board meeting in which a draft of the audit was presented. He was awarded six months’ salary and benefits by the board.

There’s an expenditure that needs to be justified to the public.

The superintendent should make clear how she will ensure the district avoids any more shortfalls. She has said that she will ask district finance leaders to present monthly updates on spending, and will push for improved technology to track spending more precisely.

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Those are two reasonable steps. But the superintendent also must address the district’s flawed system for predicting property taxes and student enrollment growth (off by 600 students, costing the district an additional $2.4 million).

Dr. Postlewait, who won praise from School Board Chair Cindy Bohn Coats for the way she is handling this unexpected financial mess, has said the district appears to lack “accountability, ownership and discipline for staying within budget.”

The superintendent certainly appears ready to make changes, including amending an “inefficient” method for hiring substitute teachers and assessing a fee-based after-school program, Kaleidoscope, which the district continued to sponsor “without ensuring there are adequate funds to support it.”

Dr. Postlewait was hired mostly because of her track record for improving student performance.

But for now, it is her background in business — and her ability to make tough business decisions — that must come to the fore to put the derailed finances of the Charleston County School District back on track.

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