Error traced to former business manager
An error in the mechanism for reporting student attendance numbers to the state is the source for the $1.4 million surprise Granville school officials found when they prepared to pay for the $18.3 million EXCEL aid building project, district officials said.
Officials said incorrect attendance numbers inserted into the SAMS (State Aid Management System) system for 2005-2006 gave officials the incorrect state aid percentage for the building project. Robert Sheridan was the business manager at the time. He retired in 2008.
Current business manager Cathy Somich said looking at the numbers in the report should have alerted Sheridan to some kind of problem at the time they were being entered. “Looking at the report should have triggered something,” Somich said. “It doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Among the red flags Somich said she saw were attendance numbers that were higher than enrollment numbers.
Somich said she could not explain those numbers because they indicate better than perfect attendance by all Granville students in grades 1-12 for 2005-2006.
“It’s got to be explained by someone who reported it,” Somich said.
A copy of the report obtained by the Granville Sentinel through the Freedom of Information Law shows the state responds to the data alerting Sheridan to large, beyond limits changes between the 2005-2006 school year filing and the filing for 2006-2007.
For example, grades 7-12 show a drop of 138.97 attendance days, well over the limit of 25 and the 15.78 percent drop also exceeds the state’s limit of a 5 percent change, Somich said.
Somich said the SAMS report goes in to the state in September of every school year.
A report provided by the district information officer shows the numbers from the attendance computer program which are put into the online form by the business manager and then approved by the superintendent of schools.
District Information Officer Dan Nelson said he has nothing to do with preparing the report for state aid other than handing the print out to the business manager; the school attendance computer program provides the data.
“I just print the report, I provide the document and (Sheridan) takes it from there,” Nelson said.
Sheridan said Monday said he, too, was unclear how the incorrect date got into and remained in the State Aid Management System for 2005-2006.
“Where the number went astray you could point at a number of places, who knows?” Sheridan said. He said he could recall issues with the attendance management program, a possible source for the incorrect attendance numbers. “We did change computer programs two or three times; I don’t know if that accounts for any of this or not,” Sheridan said.
Nelson said the district did change attendance system programs from SIMPLE to eSchool Data Systems about that time but it was related to a data warehousing issue, not accuracy of the reports.
A print out of the SAMS pages show the data was kicked back to Sheridan by the state, in response the comment said “Technology Computer Coordinator checking data for accuracy.”
Sheridan said if he got new data from Nelson the information in the system would have been fixed. “If he got back to me they (numbers) would have been changed,” Sheridan said.
Nelson said he recalled generating a second report for Sheridan once, but was not sure what year that happened. “I regenerated the report and he was happy with it. I assume when I don’t hear any complaints that he’s happy with it,” Nelson said.
Whitehall Superintendent James Watson said his district uses the same process described in Granville when filing its state aid information and he thought it would be the same in every school district.
The information officer takes a report from the attendance system and provides it to the business manager who inputs the data which is later approved by the superintendent.
“It’s one of the most important things our business manager does,” Watson said, calling the process of filing complex and tricky. Watson said the filing “provided ample opportunities for error.”
WSWHE BOCES District Superintendent James Dexter said someone should have been checking those numbers.
“Somebody should be designated to check that that’s one of the elements everyone should be concerned with,” Dexter said.
While districts might differ in who puts the data into the aid system based on their size and checks are crucial, Dexter said.
“You need to make sure that someone beyond the clerical level is verifying that data; generally (the business manager) is one of the key people who do that,” Dexter said. “It needs to be someone who would be able to recognize a problem.”
“I don’t think anybody realized it was wrong,” Somich said of the 98 percent state aid number projected during the run up to the vote.
When asked if there could have been a purpose to inflating those numbers both Somich and Nelson said no; no one benefited from the outcome.
“I think that’s important for people to know this was not done intentionally; there’s no reason to do it. That’s why we can’t explain the numbers,” Somich said.
The project was presented to voters as a zero tax impact project due to a 98 percent aid ratio from the state; the $1.1 million in an EXCEL aid grant was said to make up the remaining 2 percent of the cost.
Officials now say due to an error in reporting the number of students, Granville’s aid ratio was artificially higher than it should have been by 6.7 percent. EXCEL aid covered the expected 2 percent leaving 4.7 percent of the project costs for the district to cover which amounted to $1.4 million.
District officials said the $1.4 million will be paid off in 2025 through a combination of funds.
For the first six years of the 15-year period starting in 2010 the school has set aside a portion of the fund balance to make the $60,000 payments.
Somich said the district unreserved undesignated fund balance as of June 30, 2010, was $3.7 million.
The $250,000 will be taken from the fund balance and set aside, earmarked only for paying this bill.
The district used $435,000 from fund balance in the 2010-2011 budget year to keep the tax levy from increasing.
Granville Superintendent Mark Bessen said funds already coming out of the school budget for other debt service will be used to make the payments after the sixth year.
Payments being made toward completed projects at the high school and Mary J. Tanner will be used when those projects are paid off.
Those payments are $80,000 and $48,000, respectively, and will be completed in 2018 and 2016.
The amount spent on paying for the two previous projects is more than the $60,000 the district will owe toward the $1.4 million and Bessen said funds not used to pay the bill will be placed in a building maintenance fund.
Somich said the impact of the $250,000 from the fund balance is unclear at this time. With $3.7 million unreserved undesignated fund balance as of June 30, 2010, the repercussions of the use of addition funds is difficult to gauge.