Splaying Spigot 

School officials vs. the city auditor, Round Two

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It's difficult to pedal forward and backward at the same time, or so some Richmond School Board administrative staff members are learning as they try to explain their past reluctance to submit to a financial audit of the school system's books.

School Board members say the first audit of schools turned ugly — Mayor L. Douglas Wilder went so far as to hire an outside auditor to investigate — because some information that City Auditor Umesh Dalal requested contained student data protected by federal privacy laws.

The School Board administrative staff's cooperation with that audit "was terminated without giving any notice to the auditor's office," Dalal says. This prompted an angry Wilder to turn off the schools-money spigot, which led to a court battle. The most recent lawsuit, an appeal of a judge's decision not to force Wilder to pay up while the court considers the case, was denied.

Dalal, who previously has said School Board administration caused purposeful delays and obstructions, says these latest excuses from schools administrators don't ring true.

"For example, we wanted a procurement file," Dalal says. "All we were trying to do was trying to see what they were buying and what is the trend in purchasing. That would give us a general overview of the spending patterns.

"That information was denied," he says. "That had nothing to do with students. Period."

The School Board's chief auditor, Debora Johns, informs Style that some of the data Dalal did not receive contained student data. "If they requested any information that consisted of student data," she says, "we had to deal with privacy issues."

Copies of internal School Board audit reports obtained by Style contain no personal student data. Those reports include audits of exceptional education programs and certain procurement services operations. But those reports, according to a School Board official, have never been provided to Dalal.

Last month, Dalal sent a letter to School Board Chairman George P. Braxton outlining the parameters of his second audit of schools.

The letter defines seven areas of school administration that will be subject to "limited review." Those areas include health benefits, grounds maintenance, public information, fleet information (buses and school vehicles), grants, facilities maintenance and health services.

Three categories receiving more thorough review, according to Dalal's letter, include administration, procurement and accounts payable, and information technology.

While critical of School Board administrators, Dalal says others, including the mayor, have been guilty of spinning the audit to suit their message.

"There have been misunderstandings about the whole audit," Dalal says, tiring of the misperception that his previous audit was a completed audit. "We were going to do this audit in several phases. It was impossible for us to look at everything in one audit. Had somebody talked to me…"

Two weeks ago, Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman said the school system was $4.5 million behind in payments to various creditors because of Wilder's funding embargo.

Schools officials know troubles with Wilder will remain, regardless of the latest audit results.

"You can't worry about [Wilder's] reaction to things," City Council President Bill Pantele says, "because he is never going to accept anything as part of the solution." S

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