DeKalb school board hires auditor to evaluate COVID-19 spending

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The DeKalb County Board of Education on Monday approved the hiring of an outside auditor to evaluate how the district spent its federal pandemic aid.

The district will pay up to $877,000 for accounting firm FORVIS, LLP to examine “all spending areas” and determine whether the district complied with state and federal law, district policy and program guidelines.

State records show DeKalb has received $220 million in federal pandemic aid so far, out of a $504 million total award.

The audit comes after the district’s spending was called into question earlier this year by state auditors and outside investigators who found some employees received thousands of dollars in additional compensation.

“For the record, I believed we needed this support a long time ago,” said board member Anna Hill at a meeting Monday. “I’m glad it’s coming in now.”

Board member Joyce Morley also expressed frustration at how long it’s taken to begin the audit, but wondered whether it was necessary to contract with an outside agency. Like Hill, she said she’s happy to get the audit done.

ExploreState audit highlights financial worries in DeKalb schools

The audit of spending so far will begin in January, with the final report expected in late June. There will be an additional audit once the district has received and spent the rest of its federal funding.

A state audit of the fiscal year ending in June 2021 suggested that almost $1 million in federal pandemic aid could have been inaccurately documented or spent without appropriate approval based on an evaluation of a sample of expenditures.

Three human resources and payroll employees in the sample received bonuses totaling $23,000 without board approval or documentation of additional work performed, the audit found. Several other employees out of the random sample of 60 were found to have received bonuses they were not eligible for or for which there was no documentation.

These problems could result in “unnecessary financial strains and shortages” for the district, the report said, if federal or state education officials were to ask the district to return some of the funds.

ExploreReport: Fired superintendent not to blame for hiring, pay issues

An outside investigation commissioned by the school board revealed similar problems.

District officials told auditors that they misunderstood “ambiguous” early guidance about how to spend the money. The investigation commissioned by board members, which spanned a similar time frame, concluded that employees were not following district procedures when it came to disbursing bonuses.

Concerns about the district’s finances were one of the reasons board members in a split vote gave to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris from her role as superintendent earlier this year. Properly managing pandemic aid has been one of interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley’s top priorities.

“We’re expecting a great process here,” said board Chair Vickie Turner about the forthcoming audit. “The outcome will reveal what we need to know.”

The district’s audit committee will meet virtually at 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss more details about the scope of the audit.