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Columbia school district rejects state audit findings, appeals fiscal watch designation

By T. Michael Boddie – COLUMBIA — Richland County School District One board members voted December 13 to appeal the “fiscal watch” designation that the South Carolina Department of Education gave the district a week earlier.

Officials for the state’s ninth-largest school district told the board that findings from the Education Department’s audit of purchasing cards, which revealed misspending and poor oversight, were “immaterial” and did not warrant the fiscal watch designation.

“Let’s be clear — all transactions were business-related transactions,” Richland One procurement services director Lashonda Outing said.

The Education Department reported finding instances of p-card use by people other than the cardholders, personal purchases, purchases shipped to a residence, split transactions, unauthorized signatures or unsigned p-card statements, and overcharges in the agency’s audit of more than 3,500 transactions from March 28 to Aug. 27.

Richland County School District One was placed on fiscal watch by the State Department of Education on Dec. 6. The school board voted to appeal the decision on Dec. 13. T. Michael Boddie/Staff

Although the district is appealing the fiscal watch designation after deciding to do so in a 5-2 vote, until a hearing determines the appeal’s success, state law requires the district to cooperate with the department. This means the district has to submit a corrective action plan to the department within 60 days of the designation.

Parents reacted strongly during the meeting’s public comments to the fiscal watch, which comes on the heels of a state prosecutor’s October allegations that the district stonewalled a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into fraud by former district purchasing official Travis Braddy, and Attorney General Alan Wilson’s calls in August for a p-card probe.

“I am distressed that the district response to the audit states, and I quote, ‘None of the findings were significant enough or rose to material impact,’” said Richard Moore, a grandparent of Richland One students who ran for the board’s open at-large seat in November.

“Official warnings are not issued over insignificant issues, and even if the district does not see it as significant, the oversight agency does,” Moore said. “Even one finding of concern is significant and more than we should tolerate.”

Another parent, Coley Brown, said the school board and Superintendent Craig Witherspoon are the captains of a sinking ship.

Brown said the district’s focus should be on academics, but the continuous financial issues stall its progress in that arena. He also called for Witherspoon and long-serving board members to step down.

“If they’ve been sitting on this board for 20 years, I would love for you to resign,” Brown said to the board. “It’s so disappointing, the way you lead our district from fiscal things just to graduation and teaching.”

It was not the first time this year that people have demanded a leadership overhaul in Richland One.

Barbara Weston, who won the November election and currently sits on the school board, called for Witherspoon’s firing in August.

Citing the issue with Braddy — who was allowed to resign in May 2021 and now faces a 12-count indictment for misconduct — and human resources issues like the unexplained reassignment of a popular high school principal, Weston led a group of hundreds over the summer with a petition to Gov. Henry McMaster calling for an investigation into the district’s leadership practices.

Weston and board member Robert Lominack cast the two “no” votes on the motion to appeal the fiscal watch.

Lominack said the school board had months to talk about findings from an internal audit performed by the district and about a fiscal watch intent letter from March. He said he asked to have those findings, and the Braddy incident, on the table for a work session but it never happened.

“I know that people want to minimize the state (Education) Department’s findings, but we could have avoided all of this had the board actually taken its role more seriously when we had the chance,” Lominack said.

One example of the district’s arguments against the Education Department’s finding was that statements with incorrect or incomplete information were accidental, such as an instance where a statement was signed but not dated. Outing also said just one p-card statement out of 426 was unsigned.

“Again — immaterial finding,” Outing said. “We will continue to remind our cardholders and our approvers to ensure that they’re signing the statements, they’re reviewing them for compliance and they’re dating them.”

Outing presented corrective actions to the board during the Dec. 13 meeting for each of the Education Department’s 22 findings. Almost all of those corrective actions were to send reminders to all p-card holders of procurement codes and procedures. Updated written procedures and re-training of cardholders and purchasing approvers are also slated for January.

The district also plans to implement stricter consequences for procurement code violations, Outing said. Currently there are warnings, 30-day suspensions and a complete cutoff of the card as potential consequences.

The Education Department will have 30 days to approve or deny Richland One’s recovery plan after it’s submitted. Fiscal watch can be lifted either the following year if the department finds the corrective actions successful, or after a successful appeal by the district.

“I take this very seriously,” Richland One board member Jamie Devine said. “I appreciate staff acknowledging that we have a challenge before us. We’ve addressed it, we’ll move forward, and we look forward to the next audit that comes through.”

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