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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Amid questions of improper credit card spending, WLC superintendent a no-show at public meeting

WILTON – Dozens of people showed up at the Wilton-Lyndeborough School Board meeting Tuesday night looking for answers into accusations that the School District’s credit card has been misused, including charges for alcohol and limousine services.

Superintendent Trevor Ebel, whose name is on the district’s only credit card, didn’t attend the meeting, but 60 residents did.

Board Chairman Geoff Brock said Ebel is currently on a 10-day medical leave. He said he and the board are following legal advice in their decision not to suspend or place on leave Ebel or any other district employees.

Lou Corriveau, superintendent of neighboring Mascenic Regional School District, sat in at Tuesday’s meeting in an advisory capacity, Brock said. Brock said he and the board were “very limited on what we can say” on the ongoing investigation surrounding the mishandling of district finances.

He said the school board expects to receive the investigator’s completed report soon, and plans to discuss it at their next meeting on April 24.

Questionable credit card expenses aren’t the only financial questions the School District is facing.

Shoddy accounting practices, including undocumented or inappropriate School District expenditures, instances of paying a district employee outside the payroll system and lax oversight of the district’s credit card, were among a series of financial irregularities outlined in a critical audit of the Wilton-Lyndeborough School District.

The audit, which covered the fiscal period July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011, triggered an investigation into the use of the School District’s credit card. One key question is whether federal grant money was used to pay for items charged to the credit card, including alcohol, movies and limousine services.

A review of the credit card statements reveals a wide array of expenses. Some charges are for seemingly small amounts and are close to home, such as $4.98 for an item at the Amherst Walmart, or charges of $39 at Shaw’s Supermarket in Milford and $26 at Market Basket in Milford.

Other charges total thousands of dollars for airfare around the country, hotel reservations and rental cars, which are customary for school districts sending employees to educational and professional development conferences. Along with those trips come some pricey meals, too, including one bill for $894.14 from Flemming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Boston and another for $513.56 at Legal Seafood in Boston, which were charged at the beginning of December 2010.

In their report, auditors said they found a series of “inappropriate disbursements” charged to a state grant intended to improve teacher quality and a federal Rural Education grant. Four of six credit card disbursements that auditors reviewed were missing multiple receipts, they said, while others had insufficient documentation or involved the purchase of alcohol, movies and limousine services, which is prohibited.

The audit, compiled by Plodzik & Sanderson Professional Association of Concord, cites roughly a dozen instances of failed compliance, improper handling of purchase orders, untimely deposits of district funds and at least one instance where the district violated policy by advancing a district employee’s pay.

In his response, Ebel acknowledged the auditors findings; however, he said the School District was reimbursed in cash for some of the items charged on the card, according to the auditor’s report. The auditors said they could find no such cash receipts.

Auditors urged the School Board to implement a policy governing the use of the School District credit card and require all receipts to be submitted before payment is made for the purchases. Furthermore, they emphasized no personal items should ever be charged to the School District credit card.

During the 2010-11 fiscal year, one of the more expensive credit card statements was for late November and early December, which included more than $5,000 in charges at the Boston Park Plaza, many of those charges showed a date of Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving.

And just as Ebel and other School District staff returned from that Boston junket, another trip was already in the works to San Francisco in March, including thousands of dollars for airfare and hotel reservations.

However, The Telegraph’s request for one year of credit card statements was only partially fulfilled. The statement for the month of February was missing. The next month’s statement revealed Citizens Bank was paid late and the card incurred a $39 late fee. A handwritten note next to the “previous balance” of $384.84 on the March statement reads “paid by T.E.”

Charges on the card during March covered Ebel’s trip to San Francisco. He was accompanied by at least six other School District employees on that trip. Some of the charges during the trip include $182.87 at Palomino Restaurant and Bar, and $500.84 at the 5A5 Steak Lounge, both charged March 25, the day the group arrived in California. In the next three days, more charges were put on the card including $109.78 at the Cheesecake Factory: $671.35 at McCormick and Kuletos Seafood Resaurant and $170 for Grand Limousine. In addition, there are a number of smaller charges like $33.91 at the Cable Car Store and $9.84 for a store called Under the Golden Gate.

At their meeting Tuesday, Brock said the district’s only credit card has been “shut off” and the account “frozen.”

Brock also said he and the board are following legal advice in their decision to not place any district employees on paid or unpaid leave or suspension.

Ebel has been looking for a new job recently. He has surfaced as a finalist for superintendent jobs in Colorado, Massachusetts and twice in New Hampshire. Just last week, amid questions of the credit expenses, he withdrew from consideration for the superintendent of the Hudson School District.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6433 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.