A budget planning session with the Sampson County Board of Commissioners became heated when Chairman Clark Wooten expressed concerns over a financial audit for Sampson County Schools.
The conflict occurred before Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy presented anticipated budget needs for the 2017-18 fiscal year. He was joined by Telfair Simpson, chairman for the Sampson County Board of Education, and new Finance Officer Stephen Britt.
The largest issue came about when the district overpaid the Employment Security Commission (ESC) $453,000 for unemployment insurance for employees from pass-through state funds. Sampson County Schools is seeking a refund from ESC, but it may take years.
“So basically we got a reserve balance which is greater than what we need,” Britt said. “So we’re just requesting that back.”
Bracy hopes that a law may get changed so governmental entities can be reimbursed and Britt said it could take up to 17 years to be reimbursed. Britt believes Sampson is not the only entity facing the situation, but Wooten said no other group matters.
Wooten later asked Bracy and Simpson if school leaders were made aware of findings. He said the county Board of Commissioners receives audits from organizations they don’t oversee.
“If there’s anybody in this room who wants to know where my questions came from, they came out of this audit,” Wooten said.
According to a news release from school officials, the annual audit, prepared by Carr, Riggs, and Ingram, LLC., found deficiencies in the internal control system of the district. One issue was overpayments due to payment of some employees from the wrong budget code. The district overspent the state allotment in 2015-16 because of procedural issues. Those funds have been repaid.
During the meeting, Wooten expressed several frustrations regarding the matter.
“When there’s a problems in this county with the school system, city or county, who’s responsible when you pick up an audit that has material deficiencies in it?” he asked.
He continued and hinted how the responsibility is placed on school leaders. Wooten also said that people should not be accosted for addressing concerns to him.
“I take my seat right here seriously,” Wooten said. “The people of this county put me here to make sure that these type of things don’t happen. And to say I’m upset is least of the matter.”
While speaking with the school officials, Wooten said he was contacted by Sen. Brent Jackson about school matters. He later retracted that statement in an email to the Sampson Independent and at a continuation of the board’s planning sesssion Thursday morning, saying he meant to say he would have been blindsided “if” Jackson contacted him.
Wooten also threatened to have an investigation conducted if there is any evidence of school officials trying to keep the audit findings from county commissioners. Bracy said the information was made public and Wooten said the district should have approached him sooner about the problems.
“You and your board of education didn’t think enough of Clark Wooten and call for a meeting to have a tough discussion,” Wooten said. “It doesn’t bode well. Tough discussions are better had sooner rather than later.”
Wooten believes the issue would have not been broached if he had not dug for it. Bracy responded by saying the information was listed in financial documents. Simpson added that school officials have been working diligently to fix problems such as ESC payments.
“It bothers us too,” Simpson said about the $453,000.
To fix problems, Bracy said Britt was hired and began working Jan. 2, 2017. He has experience in public school budgets through his work as assistant finance officer for Duplin County Schools. The Board of Education was made aware of the problems during a retreat in early January.
In a news release, Bracy stressed that it’s important for citizens to understand that the audit did not find issues because of fraud.
“Rather, they were caused by internal control issues,” he said. “Overspending the state allotment, overpaying for unemployment insurance and paying employees from the wrong budget code are procedural problems that are easily resolved. Mr. Britt and I, with the knowledge and support of the Board of Education, are taking steps to ensure that funds are used and accounted for appropriately. We are serious about being good stewards of the public money that is entrusted to the district.”
In addition to hiring Britt, some of the other actions include scrutinizing budgets from central office administrators and principals; reorganizing the finance department an hiring an assistant to serve as an internal auditor; and hiring a new audit firm for the 2017-18 school year.
Simpson said the Board of Education is being briefed on financial matters facing the district. The board is confident that the corrective action plan will help fix the issues.
“We will continue to monitor the financial status of the district in the coming months to ensure that we are in compliance with all regulations for public school funding,” Simpson said. “The stakeholders of Sampson County Schools can be assured that funds are being used for schools in support of students.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.