Advocacy group calls for independent financial audit on DeKalb schools

The Restore DeKalb group wants the DCSD Board of Education to hire an
external auditor to address financial concerns.
The Restore DeKalb group wants the DCSD Board of Education to hire an external auditor to address financial concerns.

Credit: � 2018 Cox Media Group.

Credit: � 2018 Cox Media Group.

A government watchdog group is calling for an audit of DeKalb County’s $1.15 billion school system after state auditors found issues concerning the district’s bookkeeping over the past two years.

Restore DeKalb wants the DeKalb County School District’s Board of Education to hire an independent auditor because an external forensic audit “has not occurred in decades,” according to the group’s news release. Joel Edwards of Restore DeKalb said there’s a “lack of accountability” in the district’s money management even though 70% of the county’s taxes go to the school system.

“We don’t know how our money is being spent,” Edwards said. “We need something to satisfy our minds when it comes to funding the DeKalb County schools system.”

DeKalb school board vice chair Vickie B. Turner said an external audit isn’t the “worst thing in the world,” but it is “probably extremely exhaustive” and “extremely expensive,” she said. She believes the latest audits are credible enough to reflect the work that needs to be done in the district.

“I didn’t see anything that was dishonest, but what it said to me was there were some weaknesses in the processes,” she said.

The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts did not find illegal conduct. But Charles Burbridge, the school system’s latest chief financial officer, told the DeKalb Board of Education in November that school finances were not properly reported for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

DeKalb County School District chief financial officer Charles Burbridge. DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT
DeKalb County School District chief financial officer Charles Burbridge. DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

Credit: DeKalb County School District

Credit: DeKalb County School District

The contributions to retirement systems for teachers and employees were not properly reported in DeKalb, Burbridge said. Additionally, there was a lack of proper reporting on construction contracts, equipment depreciation and debt payments. Burbridge said auditors even found an “inadequate separation of duties” at schools.

DeKalb school board chair Marshall Orson said in a statement the board appreciates the community’s support, but disagrees with the request for an external audit.

Orson said some of the audit findings stem from actions “over a decade ago when neither the present Administration was working in DeKalb nor any current board member was serving on the Board.” However, the board is revising its audit committee policy to give the board “more meaningful and robust” oversight responsibilities, he said.

“The District’s audits for the last two years were completed and the audit for the most recent fiscal year is on track. Nevertheless, we see areas that must be improved, and we will continue to work to strengthen our financial systems and oversight,” Orson said.

Turner said the state audit findings were “telling” for the district’s new superintendent and chief financial officer, but she expressed confidence in the solutions proposed by Burbridge in November. Burbridge said the district needs to use state-recommended templates, new report processes, and a new statement preparer for fiscal year 2020 reporting.

The district also needs to implement a new tracking application in fiscal year 2021, and Burbridge said the school system needs to implement a new purchasing procedure. Burbridge proposed the creation of a new unit in the finance department to centralize compensation matters next year as well. He also wants to separate access to controls between the finance and technology departments.

Burbridge told the board the solutions might not be completed by year’s end, but Turner said the board will see “what progress we’ve made in three months.”

“I think we need to allow them to do their job, to do what they’re charged with,” Turner said. “This is not a walk in the park. This is a daunting task, but I don’t take it lightly and we must be diligent.”

Restore DeKalb wants the audit to focus on the last eight years of finances for purchases, athletic funds, facility expenses, construction contracts, and end of year reports from school principals.

The district has gone through three chief financial officers, at least six superintendents in the last 10 years, and four chief operating officers, Edwards said. These factors show the board should’ve requested an independent audit “a long time ago,” he said.

DeKalb school board members at the last November meeting said the state audit findings highlight why residents are wary of the school district’s operations. But Cheryl Watson-Harris, DeKalb’s new schools superintendent, told the board she is “humbled and excited” to ensure the district is transparent and accountable in addressing these issues.

Edwards said taxpayers will continue to lack confidence in the district’s financial oversight without an independent audit. He hopes the new superintendent will conduct one, but he added that Restore DeKalb is considering litigation to compel the district to get an external audit.

“Based on the school district’s previous inability to provide transparency, leaving the auditing to internal DCSD staff is not an acceptable option,” Edwards said.

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