Updated: November 15, 2012 6:29AM
By the time The Beacon-News published its story on credit card usage in the East Aurora School District, I had already spent two months tackling the issue. That involved reviewing card statements, establishing a moratorium on general purchases, and revamping a flawed, decades-old system of reporting and internal controls.
By the time readers learned of the problem, the tide was already turning in the way things are handled by the district’s finance department.
As superintendent, I am in charge of East Aurora School District 131. I am accountable to the entire East Aurora community to make sure financial operations are being handled in an appropriate and transparent manner. This is a role I do not take lightly, and one that I am honored to have.
With a budget of more than $100 million, the annual credit card expenses referenced in the story — $322,000 —represent approximately 0.32 percent, or less than one-half of one percent, of the district’s overall budget. Still, no matter how small a percentage of our budget, I am responsible for ensuring every dime of taxpayer money is accounted for properly.
For context, across the district’s 1,600 employees there only 32 administrators — 14 at the central office and 18 school principals — who have assigned credit cards. I have direct communication with each of them. They understand this privilege is to be used by principals for their schools and for my central office team to use within their department’s parameters. Last year, none of those departments exceeded their respective budgets.
In my review, I immediately saw the need for a more accountable system of internal controls with regard to statements and receipts, a check-and-balance system that our finance department obviously did not have in place.
What I did not find was wild spending or out-of-control usage of this small percentage of, or anywhere within, our total budget. As a former principal, assistant superintendent and leader of three different school districts, I would have approved the vast majority of the charges based on the specific school or department need if the request had been brought before me personally. In retrospect, we needed a new system long before we revamped the process in August, prior to the Beacon’s inquiries.
The bottom line is that items purchased through district-issued credit cards are now handled through our purchase-order process. The sharp decline in monthly credit card charges is because we are reviewing the process and those charges are now being paid for via purchases orders, but they are still an expense to the district. In cases where that system is not feasible, such as emergencies or quick turnaround times, some administrators have opted to buy items out of pocket. Accountability has increased and the district is better for it.
As I stated in the Oct. 7 story, myself and many of my administrators kept meticulous records. Without question some administrators were not, and the responsibility for their actions rests on their shoulders. Those who remain valued employees of the district accept that responsibility and have adjusted to the new standards of accountability.
Finally, let me clarify where we’ve come from and where we stand on the issue of district credit cards.
First, at no point were credit cards confiscated from administrators. A moratorium was put in place on card purchases and specific requests to me personally were required to justify any needed expenses.
Second, the vast majority of charges on the cards were for curriculum, technology, and professional development reasons — and most food charges were connected to staff meetings for those areas. Most others were tied to professional development.
Third, the district is moving forward on breaking away from an antiquated accounting system with our new Director of Business, who is a Certified Public Account and a Certified School Business Official, our School Board president, and me leading the way on new finance procedures.
Lastly, we are coming into a new level of understanding and accountability under my watch. I have never shied away from a challenge, and have always put the children of our district first. We have found an area in need of a major overhaul and that reinvention is well underway. While the vast majority of district affairs are in order, we know it only takes one weak link to make the entire chain lose strength. Could we have individually and collectively been more financially focused? Yes! Will we? You better believe it.
In good times and difficult ones, the focus of the East Aurora School District has, and always will be, on our 15,000 students. We will always work to improve in the classroom and in how we choose operate in service to the taxpayers of Aurora.
We, the district, are not defined by our flaws, but by the many great people and great things that are reflected by our great students.