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September 7, 2003

Legislators to meet with state auditors over FSDB audit

From: St. Augustine Record, FL - Sept 7, 2003

By MARGO C. POPE Associate Editor

State Reps. Doug Wiles and Don Davis are expected Wednesday to meet with the state Auditor General's office to discuss the most recent audit of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Wiles, D-St. Augustine, said Friday that he arranged the meeting at the Jacksonville regional office of Auditor General William Monroe. "That's where the records of the audit are and the auditors who conducted the audit," Wiles said. "I need to understand the audit better before I meet with school officials."

Wiles said Friday there has been no effort by the school's officials to contact him or any other state officials, to his knowledge, regarding the audit.

The audit was completed in December 2002 and came to the attention of The St. Augustine Record as part of stories about the North City school's plans for expansion into the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood.

Davis, R-Jacksonville, was traveling on Friday and unavailable for comment but Wiles said the meeting has been arranged to coincide with Davis' availability.

The school is in Davis' district. Until redistricting after the 2000 U.S. Census, it was in Wiles' district.

The state program audit of the 118-year-old residential public school covered from July 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2001, and selected transactions through Aug. 31, 2002. In it, the Auditor General detailed 13 findings critical of the school's operation. Among those findings, the audit said the school violated several state statutes including depositing public funds outside the state's treasury, the hiring of a lobbyist on a contract basis, and not obtaining appraisals on land before contracts for purchase were made.

Last Tuesday, the city's Planning and Zoning Board voted to delay for 60 days its action on FSDB's request for rezoning and planned unit development designation for an area bounded by San Marco and Douglas avenues and Alfred and Genoply streets. The school wants to expand beyond its existing 77-acre campus.

Joe Williams, an audit manager in Tallahassee for the Auditor General, told The St. Augustine Record recently, "This is not a good audit. ... The school was essentially being operated as if it were a private school. ... It needs to comply with state regulations." The Auditor General is the chief financial reviewer and monitor of all state agencies' operations.

FSDB's president, Elmer Dillingham Jr., said in a recent interview that the school operates under a board of trustees and has followed state law in accordance with the board's direction.

"There were a lot of things they (auditors) were looking at that were not clear either way as to what we were and what they thought we were," Dillingham said. "I think we are, first of all, a very unique program. The school is set up almost similar to a university run by a board of trustees. And the board of trustees when they make their rules carry the weight of law."

When those rules are approved by the state Board of Education, they become the laws under which the school operates, he said.

The Auditor General's office has recommended FSDB ask for an Attorney General's opinion, Williams said, to clarify the definition of the school, a consensus of what statutes and state guidelines apply to FSDB, and what performance standards apply.

Dillingham said last week that the school has not asked for an Attorney General's opinion yet pending bringing its new trustees up to date on the audit, and further review of the state's reorganization of the school code. He said the school wants to be sure of what questions it needs answered before the request is made.

Meanwhile, Williams described the audit response of the school from Dillingham saying: "This was an atypical response. We were pretty much blasted by the president."

In the official response to the audit, the school said, "Throughout the audit process it was evident that the auditors' typical assignments are district schools, community colleges, and universities, all of which are institutions whose primary responsibilities are the education of students who are not sensory impaired and who are not full-time campus students. It was also evident that the auditors in some instances classified FSDB not as a school but as a state agency.

"The lack of consensus as to the appropriate definition of the school results in inevitable disagreements as to which statutes and guidelines apply," the school's response said.

Dillingham told The Record recently, "I think the audit was very contentious."

He said the auditors asked questions unrelated to the audit, wanting to know why the school had not asked the Legislature for $100 million to do the campus all at once, and why the school continued to grow.

He said he told the auditors, "We are growing because the kids are coming here."

Wiles said he has reviewed many audits since he was elected in 1996. He said the audit and the school's response concern him because of the "serious" findings about, for example, the school's interpretation of some state laws, its accountability for funds it has received for recent land purchases, and the placing of funds outside the state treasury.

"The school has an excellent reputation for its educational programs and this is an audit that could damage the credibility of the school in the eyes of the public and the Legislature," he said. "For that reason, we need to resolve these issues quickly and satisfactorily so the school can focus on the special challenges of its students," Wiles said.

The audit is under review by the Department of Education, at the request of the Governor's Office. The Legislature's Joint Auditing Committee is expected to review it at a later date.

© Copyright 2002 The St. Augustine Record and Morris Digital Works.