Missing payroll data raises 'red flags'

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BELLOWS FALLS — Nine years of payroll data is missing from the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union's computers, a consultant's report into the payroll problems afflicting the WNESU's business office concluded.

Marilyn Frederick told the new Audit Committee of the supervisory union Thursday evening that she had "some difficulty in researching history of process" in doing her evaluation of the problems facing the business office because of the missing data.

"Computer files after 2010 did not seem to be accessible or exist," she wrote, and also discussed with the committee, which was created two weeks ago to investigate whether the problems facing the business office warranted additional audits, including a performance audit of the business office or even a forensic audit, which is more like a criminal evaluation.

"Understanding the system as it was, in comparison to current, was challenging without any available recent history," she wrote.

David Clark, chairman of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, said the missing data represented "a great big red flag."

School Director Jack Bryar of Grafton said missing payroll data was very alarming and immediately raised "red flags."

"We have a real concern when people lock us out of payroll data," said Bryar. "These things go way beyond a performance audit," he said.

Frederick, who said she was deliberately talking very carefully, offered to elaborate on some of the less-than-specific language in her report about finding "checks related to payroll" dated from August, which were found in November, but she wanted to discuss the matter behind closed doors.

Later in the meeting, after more than an hour behind closed doors, the committee came out and said Superintendent Christopher Pratt would "seek the guidance of appropriate financial professionals ... to reconcile the business office irregularities."

Pratt had hired Frederick and her firm, School Operations Solutions (SOS) last month to investigate payroll problems at the multi-town school district, and to get to the bottom of what caused the problems.

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Frederick's report was very supportive of the business office staff, saying they're doing a good job coping with a new software that had numerous problems and very little professional support. Frederick noted that there had been 14 upgrades to the eFinance software since the school district had adopted it in 2018, creating even more problems and proof that the software had a multitude of problems..

Teachers and staff have said many of their payroll deductions, and in some instances their checks, were incorrect, and that deposits hadn't been made for more than a month into the teachers' 403b tax-free savings accounts. Teachers, in several public meetings held by the supervisory union, said they didn't have confidence that their W2 forms, issued three weeks ago, were correct.

Pratt and Business Manager Edie Cole had fired longtime payroll clerk Ronda Williams at the beginning of November, and teachers have blamed their payroll deduction problems on Williams' absence in the business office.

The Thursday discussion also included the five members of the school district's regular audit firm, RHR Smith & Co. CPA from Buxton, Maine, which were reviewing the district's books for the fiscal year that ended in June 2019. The committee also included the RHR auditors in a portion of the closed-door session.

When the committee came out of the closed door session, it quickly passed a motion authorizing Pratt to seek additional information.

Deborah Wright, chairwoman of the committee, and a member of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, said the motion was designed to help Pratt get additional information that would help the full board make a decision on whether to seek other audits.

"We are still gathering information. We would make a recommendation. We don't have the power. It would have to come to the full board," Wright said.

Wright said the committee would meet again in a week or so to discuss what information that Pratt had gathered.

Bryar said he was "thrilled" that Frederick's report acknowledged the "hard work" that the business office had put in while coping with the new school-mandated computer system.

Pratt said he would be posting Frederick's report on the WNESU's website by early next week.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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