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Mascenic School District

District, federal funds misused

Mascenic: Right-to-Know documents detail incentive program aimed at teachers, students; grants also examined

NEW IPSWICH — Documents obtained under the state’s Right-to-Know law shed further light on the mismanagement of district funds and grants pointed out by a recent internal controls audit conducted throughout the Mascenic School District. The documents show that district funds were used as incentives for district employees and students, and the records also point to the misuse of federal grant funding.

Though the total amount of potential misuse is unclear, documents reveal an excess of $3,800 in district funds were used to purchase various rewards and incentives. On June 4, 2013, four iPods, four iPads and three Nexus 7 tablets were given as incentive awards to students for NECAP testing improvements, according to documents obtained by Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, following a Right-to-Know request submitted on Nov. 20. The district answered a portion of the request on Jan. 7; the remaining documents were made available on Jan. 10. The devices given out as rewards cost approximately $2,392, according to purchase orders, and were bought with district funds. According to the controls review, which was done by the Nashua-based Melanson and Heath & Co. in October at the district’s request, district funds should not be used to purchase rewards or awards.

One Mascenic District teacher, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisals, said that she recalled when the rewards were offered. The teachers were not given the impression at the time that the rewards had been bought with district funds, she said, but that they had been provided by former Mascenic High School Principal Trevor Courtney. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the district announced that Courtney would not be continuing in his role as principal, and hired Tom Kelly, a former vice principal of the school, to fill the position at the start of this school year.

Gifts purchases were not limited to students. In June 2011, two Amex prepaid cards for $250 each were purchased with district funds for district employees and were presented to teachers at a teaching retreat. At the same time, two Visa cards for $500 each were also purchased with district funds.

The controls review noted that grant funds were also possibly misused. In some cases, the review noted, grants prohibited purchases of gift cards, but were used for that purpose anyway. In other cases, the review said, many expenditures charged to grants either did not appear to be consistent with the objectives of the federal program, or were not directly related to the grant. Other uses seemed to be extravagant, noted the review.

That was not a surprise to her, said the Mascenic teacher. She said she had questioned several uses of grant funds in recent years. Some staff development trips, paid for by grant funds, had seemed unnecessarily extravagant, or just unnecessary to her, she said. One trip to The Wentworth by the Sea, a Marriott Hotel in New Castle for multiple administrators, including former Supt. Leo Corriveau, was held to craft a mission statement, teachers were told, but she felt something could have been done without a development trip. Other times, equipment had been purchased with grant funds and, she questioned whether more economical purchases could have been pursued, pointing to particulars such as the purchase of a Viking stove-top range, a flat screen TV, and two sets of high-efficiency washer and dryers with grant funding for Life Skills.

“We were told, ‘It’s paid for by grants, it’s paid for by grants, it won’t cost the district anything,’” she said. “But we still pay for grants, we’re just doing it through state and federal taxes.”

Several times in the last several years, Title I special education grant funds were used to purchase gift cards to Dunkin’ Donuts for raffles at parent nights as an incentive for parent participation. On at least one occasion, the district noted that Title I grant funds had been used to purchase a refrigerator — considered “equipment” due to cost and longevity — when the grant was for office supplies. The expense was retroactively approved by the State Department of Education, according to emails between district employees and representatives of the Department of Education.

Supt. Ruthann Goguen said in an interview Monday that among the changes the district will be making after the internal controls review is to put in place better controls of grant funding. The district will be implementing organized grant management. One of the goals will be to ensure that the grant funds are being spent in line with the requirements of the grant.

“There is more grant oversight happening,” said Goguen. “Our new School Board has that as a goal.”

The Mascenic teacher said that she has been feeling better about decisions being made in the district since a recent turnover in, not only the district’s superintendent, but also the high school principal and multiple members of the School Board. She said in recent months morale in the district has improved considerably, and she feels the district is moving forward under a better direction.

Goguen said the district has not received any communications from the Department of Education as a result of the recent review’s findings. Judith Fillion, Department of Education director of the division of program support, said in an interview Monday that the state does have an investigator that would handle any complaints of misconduct. Such an investigation would occur following more complete details emerging, she said, such as the completion of a financial audit. She would not comment on whether or not there is an ongoing investigation or complaint against the Mascenic School District.

The first step in a Department of Education investigation of a potential issue would be to look for intent, personal benefit, and make a determination to see if it would warrant a revocation of a credential of a business administrator. There may be other consequences, said Fillion, but they would be decided by the individual programs, which administer the grants. Any determination that funds needed to be returned would be a matter to be handled by law enforcement, she said. Fillion did confirm that the Department of Education had not revoked or suspended any licenses of anyone working at Mascenic in relation to the findings of the recent internal controls review.

As a result of the review, there has been a closer look at the district’s business office, said Goguen. “We have municipal resources on sight looking at all of our business practices,” she said. Goguen declined to comment when asked if there have been any repercussions within the administration.

Some internal business control aspects pointed out in the review have already been addressed. In the past, multiple people in the district’s business office had the authority to print and electronically sign checks and reconcile accounts. Now, those duties are delegated solely to the district treasurer. The treasurer position, which had until recently been held by the accounts payable clerk, has also been separated out and is now held by Roger Somero, who does not hold any other position in the district.

After the release of the review in November, School Board Chair Jeff Salmonson said the district would also be incorporating other recommendations of the audit, including forming an Audit Committee, Finance Committee and/or a Financial Risk Management Committee to review potential wastes in the district, and hiring a human resources director.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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