ANwSU picks new business manager

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, beset by financial woes since the Vermont Agency of Education earlier this year said it would withhold funds because of “very weak” bookkeeping and many accounting problems, has taken another step toward putting the school district on firm financial ground.
Superintendent JoAn Canning announced on Monday that Windsor Northwest business manager Tonia Mears has accepted the business manager position in the Vergennes-area school district, effective Oct. 28.
Canning said she agreed with the recommendation of an ANwSU screening committee, who put forward Mears from among a pool of four finalists who interviewed for the post. In all, about a dozen candidates applied.
The position has been vacant since July, when ANwSU placed former business manager Kathy Cannon on administrative leave. At an Aug. 27 public forum devoted to explaining ANwSU’s financial problems and its efforts to resolve them, ANwSU officials confirmed Cannon was no longer an employee.
Canning said Mears — a 10-year employee of Bethel-based Windsor Northwest and a Pittsfield resident who has a 1992 degree from Champlain College — stood out for two reasons: She showed a solid grasp of the job and had helped Windsor Northwest dig out of financial woes not unlike that which ANwSU now faces.
“She did a phenomenal job of demonstrating her knowledge of the laws and the intricacies of the funding formula and the budget-building process,” Canning said. “Tonia was also in a school district that was challenged by some budget issues several years ago … She was promoted to business manager and was instrumental in putting the district back on track. It was maybe not as complicated as the situation here, but similar in that there was public concern and different internal controls and processes that needed to be cleaned up.”
Canning and the ANwSU board had hoped to have a business manager on the job by early October. But Canning said it was more important to find the right candidate than to rush the process.
“I told the screening committee, ‘Do not settle,’” she said. “I was very, very clear that I would not just hire someone to sit in the seat and say I had hired a business manager. It had to be the right person with the right knowledge.”
After the screening committee recommendation, Mears was interviewed by ANwSU central office staff and principals. Canning said she considered that feedback as well before making the final contract offer that Mears accepted.
At the same time, Canning also learned another hurdle had been cleared: The long-delayed ANwSU Fiscal Year 2013 audits have been completed. They will be presented in public sessions at November ANwSU school board meetings, she said.
ANwSU is trying to recover from the springtime suspension by the Vermont Agency of Education of about $1 million of annual federal grants that help fund special education, literacy and other programs.
That suspension led to the June discovery by a visiting education agency monitoring team of many ANwSU accounting problems on top of the district’s failure to meet federal grant reporting requirements.
Canning said the district is making progress.
“We are in better shape today. I received word from the auditors that all the 2013 audits have been completed. I am just waiting for the bound copy to distribute to the boards. I will have members of the auditing firm presenting their findings to the individual boards in the month of November. I am finishing one of our previously owed stats reports. I have hired a business manager,” she said. “I think we have made tremendous strides over the past couple months.”
But Canning acknowledged it remains hard to pinpoint ANwSU’s financial condition.
“That answer is going to come in the FY14 audit,” she said. “It has been difficult to get a clear financial picture of the finances because of the poor coding, the lack of a purchase order numbering system, the lack of management of our grants, and the lack of budget building on our financial software system. So there is no easy answer here. Plus the fact that we have not had federal dollars for a long period of time, it’s been a very difficult situation.”
Still, there is good news mixed in. The completion of the Fiscal Year 2013 audit in itself helps answer many of the questions that led to the grant suspensions, Canning said, and also ensures that ANwSU will be able to borrow money while waiting for property tax revenue to arrive, as school districts must do in the normal course of business.
“The big key for them (the Agency of Education) in getting to be able to release our federal funds was the FY12 and 13 audit,” Canning said. “Any day now I’ll receive that information and they will release that check.”
Even without a business manager, she said, ANwSU has improved its accounting practices.
“Some of the internal controls have been developed and we are cleaning up the chaos and getting a much clearer picture of where we are, and that will be formally reported to the boards in the FY14 audit,” Canning said.
The superintendent stopped short of saying she is confident in ANwSU’s financial footing, but said it is on the right track. 
“I am confident in the path we are forging moving forward. I do not have a full picture of where we are financially at this point,” Canning said. “We are really anxious to get Tonia on board and supporting her through the transition, because she knows it’s going to be very, very busy for the next couple months.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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