Big money problem greets superintendent

"Welcome to the South Whidbey School District, Dr. Laster. Here's your desk, here's your chair, and here's a $263,525 budget problem that hardly anyone knew about.Well, perhaps the new superintendent of schools' welcome wasn't that abrupt, but on Monday, the day of Laster's first school board meeting, he was dealing with a big budget problem that had been dropped into his lap.The problem stems from an audit by the Washington State Auditor's Office. The final draft report dated June 23 states that the South Whidbey School District owes the state $107,486 from the 1997-98 school year and $156,030 from the 1999-2000 school year. Laster and Jim Adsley, president of the school board, made the matter public Monday morning. The problem centers on state staff mix apportionment funding to the school district based in part on educational credits earned by teachers. As a teacher's education improves his or her pay is increased, but only if the extra education is properly documented in school district records.The state audit, conducted from Sept. 1, 1997 though Aug. 31, 1999, concluded that the South Whidbey School District did not have proper documentation that could be used for verifying the accuracy of the experience and education of the district's certificated instructional staff.By counting only verifiable credits, the auditors concluded that the school district was overpaid those two years by a total of $263,525. South Whidbey received $9.4 million from the funding source in 1997-98 and $9.6 million in 1998-99.The school district has 140 instructional staff. The state auditors tested 70 of their files each year of the audit. The first year 53 files with errors in total credits were found, and the second year that increased to 57 files with credit errors.The credits are probably there but the paperwork isn't there to support it, Adsley said. The school district won't have to slash programs and write the state a check to make up the overpayment, however. Adsley said the state would simply reduce its support over the next three years to make up the difference.Laster hopes that won't be necessary because it would hurt school programs. It's real money, it's just how they take it from you, he said.Before finalizing any payback requirements, the school district has an opportunity to make its records right by supplying proper credit documentation after the fact.Laster said a letter is being sent out to all certificated employees asking them to provide proof of their credentials. Without proof, teachers could lose some pay. According to Laster, the 1996 State Legislature tightened up the documentation required to prove that extra credits were earned by the teachers.In fact, according to Adsley, the school district was advised of this problem long ago, under the administration of Dr. Lisa Bjork whose resignation was effective June 30. He said some effort was made to obtain the needed documentation from teachers, but response was minimal. There was almost no response, there was no closure, he said. It sat there and festered.As the new man in charge, Laster was careful not to judge anything that happened in the past. He's looking ahead, and hoping that all the documentation needed can be obtained and recorded by the deadline of Oct. 1 when the state auditors will return.Meanwhile, the school district will do its own internal audit of teachers' credits. Laster is confident that by Oct. 1, much of the debt to the state will have been erased through the documentation process. We will have drastically reduced it, he said."

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