Audit uncovers financial reporting concerns in DeKalb schools

Cleaning supplies sit outside a school bus as bus drivers disinfect the vehicles at DeKalb County School District headquarters in Stone Mountain. (Marlon A. Walker)

Cleaning supplies sit outside a school bus as bus drivers disinfect the vehicles at DeKalb County School District headquarters in Stone Mountain. (Marlon A. Walker)

State auditors have completed their review of the DeKalb County School District, where they found issues concerning the district’s bookkeeping on equipment and contracts over the past two years.

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

The contributions to retirement systems for teachers and employees were not properly reported in DeKalb either, Burbridge said. There was also a lack of proper reporting on construction contracts, and the district did not properly classify its debt payments between principal and interest. There were also issues with how the district identified the distinction between cash and investments.

Burbridge, an Illinois native and former Chicago Public Schools executive, told the board: “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” as he called the findings “a little bit ugly.”

“We’ve got work to do,” he said. “There are things in here that you really don’t want to be here.”

The district did not properly report the depreciation of its school buses and several other “equipment assets,” Burbridge said, even though it is required by the district’s policy. Additionally, the district was unable to provide auditors equipment listings and additional quotes or contract information for vendors, other than those selected in federal programs.

State auditors found an “inadequate separation of duties” at school sites, Burbridge said, adding that there was a lack of control on access to financial applications and password settings. The district’s plan for recovery in the event of “IT disaster” was not completed or placed into operation either, and the district has not developed IT security policies or operating procedures.

Burbridge’s remarks to the board were only a synopsis of state auditor’s 41-page report, he said.

“You characterized these audits as disappointing and I would characterize them as a disgrace,” said DeKalb school board member Stan Jester.

Jester and the other board members thanked Burbridge for the summary. Burbridge is “stepping into a storm here with the finance department,” Jester said, but the board expressed confidence in the district’s ability to resolve these concerns.

DeKalb school board chair Marshall Orson told Burbridge some of the findings have been there “for years,” and he said the district needs to be transparent with its efforts to address the findings. Board vice chair Vickie Turner said the district needs to assess “the effectiveness” of its staff.

Board member Michael Erwin, who was so visibly distraught during the virtual meeting that used profanity, said the district’s former superintendent and the system’s longtime chief financial officer “failed” the district in its ability to properly maintain records and duties. The former chief financial officer resigned last year after six years in his role, and the former superintendent took over in 2015.

“You’ve got to be willing to call your own baby ugly,” said board member Allyson Gevertz. “We have to break out of past habits and I’m so happy to hear you talk about our audits this way.”

Burbridge provided a laundry list of steps required to resolve the financial concerns, but he stressed the solutions might not be completed by year’s end. The district needs to use state-recommended templates, new report processes, and a new statement preparer for fiscal year 2020 reporting.

The district needs to implement a new tracking application in fiscal year 2021. Additionally, 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.

The district is already working to address some of the concerns, Burbridge said. The IT department has updated existing procedures and drafted new information security policies for the board policy approval process, he said. The IT unit is also completing a systemic business continuity plan that will to be presented by April 2021.

DeKalb Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris told the board she is “humbled and excited” to be in charge of ensuring the district is transparent and accountable in addressing the issues from the findings. She said in a statement that the findings listed in the audit summary and solutions will help DeKalb County School District “continue to move onward and upward.”

“My administration is committed to high standards and transparency. I am thankful for the work of the Department of Audits and the District’s Finance staff in getting the District back on task with our annual audits. I am also confident that our new chief financial officer, Mr. Charles Burbridge, will work diligently to keep us on track going forward,” she said.