Questions rankle East Aurora School Board president
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org September 18, 2013 5:26PM
Updated: October 20, 2013 7:41AM
AURORA — It seemed like a routine discussion about hiring an East Aurora School District business department staffer.
But a tense discussion at Monday’s school board meeting elicited questions about a possible violation of school board policy and prompted one board member to say communication has broken down among board members.
As the school board prepared to approve the budget for the 2013-14 school year, board member Ray Hull asked if the district had yet to hire a purchasing agent.
The position, which was approved in July, entails buying supplies and equipment for the district and preparing and evaluating bid documents.
It’s a key role that district officials have said will help eliminate the bidding and contract issues that have plagued the district, most recently over janitorial supplies and food services.
School Board President Annette Johnson said district administration had decided to hold off on hiring that person until the business department finished setting up new software and completed all line items for the new budget.
In the meantime, she said, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Beatrice Reyes Childress was helping to approve purchase orders.
Hull said that by moving that duty out of the business department that the district was violating school board policy.
Board member Mary Lou Peryea said she didn’t want Reyes Childress’ attention diverted from her already large role of overseeing curriculum.
“We’re just kind of opening ourselves up to issues here,” Peryea said.
Johnson, who has spearheaded the district’s effort to improve its financial record-keeping in the wake of last year’s health insurance and credit card issues, said the role shuffling was not a violation of board policy.
She said there is a system of checks and balances in place to ensure Reyes Childress is not the only person looking at the purchase orders.
Later, Johnson added that the assignment is temporary and that Reyes Childress took over the job after building principals complained they weren’t getting their supply orders approved quickly enough leading up to the start of school.
“Fixing the business office, as I explained to the board, is a long task, it’s an arduous task,” Johnson said. “We just don’t want to bring someone in before we have new phases of the system installed. We don’t want to waste taxpayer money.”
During the meeting, Peryea also asked Johnson about missing summer bills and why the Quad County Urban League, which provides alternative education services to the district, had received a payment worth half the value of its contract, instead of 10 monthly installments.
Johnson said she already had given Peryea answers to her questions via email.
She said the missing bills were the result of a business software change, not a “slight of hand.” She added the bills had since been fixed.
Johnson said the district has the discretion to pay contracts in the installments it chooses and does so often with construction companies.
Johnson, who is an accountant, added that she has a “deeper understanding” about the district’s finances than the other board members and suggested they become more educated about those finances.
Board member Kirsten Strand asked if the board could be trained on district finances and processes, a move Johnson said she would support.
“It is a new day in EA and it’s time the board members got on board,” Johnson said as she concluded the meeting.
Hull said it’s a problem when the school board president gets fired up over public questions that aren’t meant to be attacks. Board members feel pressure to keep their questions to email before meetings, he added.
“At that point you can’t say anything else in public,” Hull said. “She is going to control the public meeting.”
He added that he is “tired of being insulted” by Johnson. He alleges Johnson called him a “jackass” after he asked questions publicly at Monday’s meeting.
On Tuesday, Johnson said she wasn’t sure what else she could have done to keep the board informed about what’s going on in the business department and attributed the tension at Monday’s meeting to growing pains.
“I have spent weeks and weeks updating them on the accounting,” she said. “This was explained to board members in emails in a variety of ways. I do feel we’ve been going more than out of our way to keep everyone up to speed.”
“All change is preceded by some degree of chaos,” she added. “And that’s the mode we’re in now.”