Residents grill board on ANwSU finances

VERGENNES — Reactions at an Aug. 27 public forum devoted to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s accounting crisis ranged from a call for the ANwSU board’s resignation to statements backing the board and new superintendent JoAn Canning’s effort to put the district back on course.
ANwSU board chairman Jeffry Glassberg and Canning — with an attorney present who had just advised the board behind closed doors on language to use when referring to former business manager Kathy Cannon and former superintendent Tom O’Brien — also detailed what they had done to restore the district’s good standing with the Vermont Agency of Education and instill good accounting practices at its office.
Glassberg told a crowd of about three dozen at Vergennes Union High School that Wednesday night that the agency (AOE) had restored funding earlier in the month and that, “We have made certain staff changes and undergone certain staff training.”
In an Aug. 4 letter to ANwSU, AOE Secretary Rebecca Holcombe wrote that the AOE is “reassured by your swift and thorough response to our concerns, and your clear commitment to ensuring that ANwSU meets its various financial reporting obligations to the AOE, while implementing and maintaining best practices at the central office.”
That letter followed a July 31 meeting in Montpelier attended by Glassberg, Canning and Holcombe at which the ANwSU officials outlined their response to the June AOE visit that uncovered a series of accounting deficiencies.
The AOE had already started withholding federal and state grant funds in April that officials said typically total more than $1 million a year and mostly support special education and literacy programs. 
Current ANwSU officials said they were unaware of those sanctions until a July 3 letter arrived that called the ANwSU’s financial record “very weak.” That letter cited many accounting problems listed in a July 1 report that, in turn, summarized the AOE June monitoring visit.
Problems identified in the report included use of an off-the-books checking account and a series of failures to meet grant reporting requirements, to properly use existing accounting software, to establish written procedures to administer contracts, to establish a system to deal with vendors, and to complete audits and inventories.
 At the forum, Glassberg said the AOE found no evidence of malfeasance, although nothing has been ruled out.
“We are not aware at this time of misuse of funds,” he said.
After the July 1 letter arrived, ANwSU officials placed Cannon on paid administrative leave. Glassberg on Aug. 27 said Cannon is no longer a district employee and that she had signed “a release of all possible civil claims” against ANwSU.
Also, Glassberg said ANwSU had the expenses of paying for an interim business manager, a consultant and legal fees, and that “recovery of those costs is an issue we will review.”
“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers” not to increase costs, Glassberg said, but “we need to balance that with the need to hold people accountable.”
Questioners wondered why the board had not been notified until July about the April suspension of funds, and about larger oversight issues.
Vergennes City Council member Lynn Donnelly asked what the “chain of command” was when the April letter arrived.
“The question relates to personnel matters which the board can’t go into in detail,” Glassberg said, adding that “further investigating” would be done.
“Are there grounds for legal action against any entity or any person?” asked Ferrisburgh’s Lou MacLaren.
“We are definitely preserving all options,” Glassberg said.
 Ferrisburgh’s John Medenwald wondered about O’Brien.
“Are there any ramifications going on with the former superintendent?” he said.
“We are looking at all options,” Glassberg said. 
Glassberg also emphasized that ANwSU has begun putting in place all needed accounting systems, and he and Canning repeatedly referred to changing the ANwSU office culture.
Holcombe’s Aug. 4 letter also insisted that ANwSU hire a new business manager “with the advice of” the AOE. Canning said a search committee has already been formed to find a new business manager with a Sept. 30 target.
Other AOE conditions Glassberg and Canning said have been or will be met, as stated in Holcombe’s letter, include:
• “Working through business office reorganization and transitions.”
• “The SU’s FY12 and FY13 audits will be completed within 180 days. We are very pleased with the progress you have made on these audits.”
• “You have already provided appropriate professional development and support for the Director of Curriculum.”
The AOE will also send another team to Vergennes later this month to help prepare grant reports for the past and upcoming school years and ensure that progress is being made on the larger issues.
Not all were as satisfied as the AOE with ANwSU’s progress.
Vergennes resident David Ambrose said the board had lost the confidence of residents.
“I would like to see this school board resign,” Ambrose said. “If you want to develop faith in the community, you could resign and get re-elected … What you have done to this point is ignore all the input that has been given you, and I don’t know that is going to change.”
His remarks drew applause from one other attendee. Shortly afterward Ferrisburgh’s Kristina MacKulin praised the board to applause from about a dozen in the crowd.
“I personally have confidence in our school board. They have worked very hard. It’s a difficult situation,” MacKulin said. “They’re here to help us move forward.”
The board was questioned several times about its lack of financial oversight. Glassberg said he had lobbied since joining the board in early 2013 for regular financial reports, but they had never been presented despite requests to Cannon and O’Brien. 
“Did I make my concerns known to the superintendent? Yes,” he said.
Ferrisburgh resident Doug Sutton then asked if such reports were now being presented, but Glassberg said no.
“Why not?” said Sutton.
Canning answered, saying first they take a “significant amount of time to prepare,” and the office still lacks a business manager while at the same time working hard to establish its new financial systems, paying bills, meeting payrolls and keeping up with its reporting and other financial obligations.
“It’s hard to build a plane when you have to fly it every day,” Canning said. “This is hard. Are we going to get through it? Yes we are … I promise and pledge to you we are going to solve this problem.”
But Sutton said taxes had increased dramatically and that measures were inadequate.
“Our accounts are empty,” he said. “Nothing is being addressed.”
Canning disagreed.
“There is a lot being addressed,” she said. “The culture is being addressed.”
The simmering issue of late audits came up. Addison’s Carol Kauffman, who has crusaded for several years for ANwSU to provide timely audits, asked Glassberg if her comments should have been given more weight.
“Should they have been taken more seriously?” Kauffman said.
“Absolutely,” Glassberg said.
Ferrisburgh’s Kevin Rooney asked why the audits have been late.
“Because the supervisory union hasn’t been ready,” Glassberg said, adding that after the upcoming school year ANwSU would seek bids for a new auditing firm because problems “were not identified by the auditors and should have been.”
Some still did not trust ANwSU officials, despite the new regime, to handle ANwSU funds. 
“What about the rest of the taxpayers’ money?” Ambrose said.
“The intent is to have much more focus on issues of financial control,” Glassberg said.
Sutton asked about the failure of the board to prevent the problem.
“Who is going to take personal accountability for what has happened?” Sutton said. “What is going to happen next?”
“There was a failure of oversight. It’s unacceptable,” said Glassberg.
He added the board would be undergoing training, and that citizens could use “the ballot box” to hold the board accountable if they chose, or run for a board seat themselves.
“We’re all elected. In some cases we’re appointed because no one wanted to run for the seat,” Glassberg said. “I encourage all of you to consider board service.”
But many said they backed the board and new administration.
Vergennes Union Elementary School educator and district union representative Rose Wenzel said she believed the ANwSU board was doing a “fantastic job” responding to the crisis.
“I’d like to thank the board members for all their hard work,” Wenzel said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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