Eight months after a state audit revealed a series of leadership and financial control deficiencies, the Hickman Mills School District appears to be in recovery.
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich’s office on Wednesday released a status report. Of 17 problem areas cited in a March report, recommended fixes for 16 of them either have been completed or were being completed.
“They have made a tremendous amount of progress in these eight months and we hope to see them continue on this path,” said Spence Jackson, spokesman for the auditor’s office.
Schweich’s office audited the district after receiving a citizens’ petition. While in most cases an entity gets 90 days to shape up, the district received seven months “because of the complexity and severity of the findings,” Jackson said.
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“In most cases there just wasn’t sufficient monitoring and oversight,” he said. “We did not find any stolen or missing money. It came down to weak controls.”
The most bothersome problems, Jackson said, dealt with a superintendent search not being conducted in a public manner and a disputed balance to be paid to former superintendent Marjorie Williams as part of her leave package. The district has since reached a settlement with Williams.
Other problems included a low unrestricted cash balance and falling revenues. The district fixed those problems by decreasing the size of its staff, including teachers and teachers’ aides. The district reported an unrestricted fund balance of about $16 million at the end of June.
The district cash balance as a percentage of expenditures rose from 13.5 percent in June 2012 to 28 percent in June 2014.
The audit also found that the school board inappropriately held closed meetings and did not give proper public notice and did not adequately monitor purchases involving meals and travel.
Another problem was that electronic devices, including thousands of dollars worth of iPads, had not been tracked.
“I was really disappointed that we purchased technology and did not have adequate control over where it was and who had control over it,” board member Dan Osman said.
The district now has new inventory software.
“The issues in the audit were dealt with but not caused by the current leadership,” Osman said.
The problems started under a previous administration.
Last year, Dennis Carpenter came in as superintendent. He restructured the district leadership from his deputies down to principals and assistant principals. Voters elected new members to the school board.
“This district is in a good place now,” Carpenter said.
The audit report, he said, “provided a good road map to develop a systematic plan for improvement. We took each concern step by step and built a plan for each, not just a short-term fix.”
In addition to cleaning up the problems brought out in the audit, the provisionally accredited district is on track to full accreditation, he said.
All of this comes at a good time for Hickman Mills. One of its elementary schools, Symington, recently won a million-dollar ConnectEd Initiative grant from Apple that will give the school a technology makeover, with Apple hardware and software and an iPad for every student, Osman said.
The school is one of four in Missouri and 114 in the country selected for the grant.
Having controls in place, Osman said, “is important now more than ever before.”