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One questioning budget oversight of school officials

By Staff | Jan 28, 2009

One member of the Lee County School Board has expressed concern regarding oversight of the school district’s $1.55 billion budget.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik sent a letter to State Attorney Steve Russell, Gov. Charlie Crist, Commissioner of Education Eric Smith, the Lee County Legislative Delegation and a number of other officials, describing what he claims is “the inadequate fiscal oversight of a multibillion dollar budget.”
“We are dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars of public money and, for some reason, we don’t see fit to exercise reasonable oversight of these expenditures,” said Chilmonik in the letter.
Samantha Syoen, spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office, said the letter had not been received Wednesday afternoon and could give no comment.
Chilmonik also submitted the 36-page memorandum to members of the school board and Superintendent James Browder on Tuesday morning. It outlined how the district owns 900 acres of undeveloped land, yet has built more than 20 new schools in the past five years.
Some of the other concerns outlined in his letter included examples of “shoddy workmanship,” cases where the same work was done more than once.
A 2006 audit by Cuthill & Eddy, a firm independent from the school district, stated that the district kept inadequate records and a construction manager allegedly bartered work in exchange for $148,000 worth of lighting fixtures.
Chilmonik added that recommendations from a committee dealing with construction bids have been arbitrarily changed in the selections process to award bids to certain companies.
In July the board decided not to rehire a school board auditor after Julie Nieminski left. Board members said her position was valued at $200,000, and therefore it was included in a string of position cuts last year. The board explained that any necessary audits in the future could be carried out by the superintendent’s audit department, led by Robert Brown.
In an audit dated November 2007, Nieminski said that fake social security numbers were found on the school district’s Master Vendor System, and she observed cases where public records were destroyed before and after audits.
Furthermore, her recommendations to decrease the risk of fraud have not been implemented, said Chilmonik.
“All I can say is congratulations if fraud doesn’t happen in the next three years,” said Nieminski in her e-mail. “It certainly occurred in the past, but the supporting records were no longer there.”
Chilmonik also studied land purchases and found the superintendent used the small contract procedure 27 times to approve land deposits worth $24,999 because deposits more than $25,000 need board approval.
On Tuesday night the Lee County School Board entered into a local agreement with the office of Lee County Clerk of Court Charlie Green to conduct audits for the district.
Board Member Jeanne Dozier negotiated with Green to form an agreement that benefits the district monetarily.
“I had the opportunity to talk to the clerk of courts this summer,” said Dozier. “One of the things his office assured me is that he would only charge us what the costs are.”
During a discussion of the memorandum, Dozier made a public records request for all of the e-mails between Chilmonik and Nieminski, stating that she is concerned about personal attacks against her in the e-mails.
“There was an e-mail from Ms. Nieminski and had quite a few statements in it regarding me personally, and as a result it would warrant how the e-mails got started,” said Dozier on Tuesday night.
Members of the board said they do not understand why Chilmonik brought up issues from the past.
“I was stunned this morning when I received 36 pages of inquiry to our state officials and to our governor about auditing procedures and questions that are 2 years old and that have already been discussed,” said Board Member Elinor Scricca.
Besides financial issues, certain district employees have complained about a culture of threats and retaliation that have prevented them from coming forward with potential cases of fraud.
A construction worker connected with the school district named Gabe Navarro sent an e-mail to Chilmonik at the end of 2007 where he expressed concern for his personal security if he gave bona fide information on how the district rewards construction projects.
Navarro claimed that construction mistakes were commonly occurring because workers were spending “the vast majority of the day talking about drinking and getting drunk, sex and (gripping) about the school board.”
In her correspondence with Chilmonik, Nieminski said she was regularly intimidated and treated badly when her findings were not popular with the board. She also questioned whether the superintendent’s audit department would report true findings if under duress.
“No professional auditor that hears about how Martha and I were chastised would even consider working for a board that doesn’t give them support,” said Nieminski.