School officials should explain

Charleston County School District building at 75 Calhou Street (File/Staff)

People have lots of questions about the Charleston County School District’s $18 million shortfall, who is responsible and how much it will cost the public to set things straight.

But at a time when they should be most responsive, school officials are clamming up, avoiding calls and for the most part leaving questions unanswered.

For example, in his article on Sunday, reporter Paul Bowers noted that Executive Finance Director Terri Shannon failed to respond to repeated email requests for comment via a district spokesman over the course of five days last week.

Nothing. Not even an explanation of why she was holding him off.

The CCSD Human Resources Department didn’t respond to requests Thursday and Friday for comments on the school’s method for hiring substitute teachers — considered by Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait as an inefficient system.

And Mr. Bowers tells us that requests he made last week for interviews with five more school officials who work in areas where financial problems were identified also went unfulfilled.

Granted, school officials are probably particularly busy given the financial crisis at CCSD. But the public deserves information about the way millions of tax dollars were misspent. At the very least, officials can say when they will be able to provide the information — the sooner, the better.

The longer it takes, the more people’s confidence in the district will erode. Already they know that CCSD overspent its personnel budgets by more than $5.3 million in a single year that ended in June. And that doesn’t count the money CCSD paid employees after firing them.

The district overestimated the taxes it would receive and underestimated student population growth.

Further, the district has failed to use a $450,000 software program it purchased in September 2014, after seven yearly audits pointed out serious accounting problems. Todd Garrett, who has taken a leadership role in probing the financial situation as chairman of the Charleston County School Board’s Audit and Finance Committee, said that if the program had been implemented years ago, “none of this ever would have happened.”

The district continued to fund the Kaleidoscope after-school program (by $575,000) although it was to be defunded.

It spent $500,000 in October of 2014 for penalties levied by IRS for missing deadlines.

And apparently district officials spent much of the money in question without proper authorization — or with authorization that should not have been granted.

In light of an $18 million deficit, $86,000 looks insignificant. But taxpayers have to come up with that money on top of everything else to pay for a forensic audit and hire two former chief financial officers from other school districts in South Carolina to review the situation.

When the Charleston County School District should be doubling down to root out problems and assure the public they will be fixed, officials appear to be headed for the bunker.

Will Charleston County taxpayers be angry to know what happened? Who could blame them? But they will be even angrier if the district fails to explain fully who was responsible for the huge deficit and how they will be held accountable — and to assure them that CCSD will never let something like this happen again.