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September 27, 2003

Review of audit on FSDB continues

From: St. Augustine Record, FL - Sept 27, 2003

Associate Editor

State legislators representing St. Johns County continue to dig into the findings of a recent critical state audit of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

State Reps. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville, and Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, have separate meetings scheduled with state audit officials and others, they told The St. Augustine Record on Friday.

The state Auditor General's operational audit of the school located in North City on San Marco Avenue found 13 areas where it said the school had violated state law.

The operational audit covered the time from July 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2001, and some transactions through Aug. 31, 2002. It is not a measurement of the school's educational programs, a state auditor said last month, but its business practices.

Since that audit's release in December, school officials have been working through the list of criticisms. In March, the school contracted with an outside auditing firm to conduct the school's internal audit functions. The review of the state audit by the firm of Taylor and Wainio was presented to the Board of Trustees of the school in August.

The firm was hired last spring, becoming one of the school's responses to the state audit criticism, calling for a reorganization of the internal auditing function.

The school's Board of Trustees meets today for its September meeting at 9 a.m. in the Wilson Music Building on the campus at 207 San Marco Ave.

Mary Jane Dillon, trustees chairwoman, said the audit and the supplemental report are not on the agenda but they could come up under old business if a trustee wanted to discuss them.

The 13 findings in which the state said the school had violated state laws or regulations included 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.

In its supplemental report on the audit findings, Taylor and Wainio confirmed that the school was complying with the state's findings in most regards.

Among the areas of compliance are: moving school funds into the state treasury other than those listed as donations, gifts or bequests that can be held outside the state treasury; discontinuing the practice of contracting for lobbying services; and establishing procedures to ensure that the school obtains appraisals of land before entering into negotiations with the land owners.

Dillon said she was pleased with the outcome of the Taylor and Wainio report.

"It's an endorsement of the school's progress implementing recommendations from the Auditor General," she said.

Most of the issues in the state audit have been resolved with changes in some business practices by the school, she said.

As for the criticisms where the school disagrees with the state auditors, the Auditor General has recommended the school ask the Attorney General for an opinion on those matters. Dillon said the discussion of what to ask for in an Attorney General's opinion will probably come up at the October trustees meeting.

Davis and Wiles have not met with school officials or trustees as of yet.

However, both said Friday that they had been invited and met with the residents of Nelmar Terrace, the neighborhood in which many residents are opposed to the school's expansion plans. The school wants to build additional facilities on property south of the school that is part of the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood.

Davis and Wiles met with state audit officials in early September in Jacksonville at the Auditor General's regional office. At that time, both were given a review of the audit by the auditors who conducted it.

Davis said Friday that he has a meeting next week with state audit officials while the Legislature is in Tallahassee for committee meetings. He said he also will meet with Commissioner of Education Jim Horne.

"I've gathered a lot of data and facts and information various folks have given me, and I want to take it over there and talk with the Auditor General's office and the commissioner of education ... and maybe get the governor's office involved to get this mess straightened out," Davis said.

Wiles said he also will meet next week with the Auditor General's staff and the staff of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.

Wiles said he received a copy of the supplemental report from the school earlier this week and is still reviewing it.

"I know the Auditor General's office has it and am personally aware that it has been received by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee's staff director," Wiles said.

"My intention in meeting with them is to talk about what is the next step for the state in this matter."

Wiles said he wants to be sure he understands the state's position on the school's business practices before he meets with school officials.

Wiles is the House's minority leader and the school formerly was in his legislative district.

However, because of redistricting after the 2000 U.S. Census, the school is now in Davis' district.

Joe Williams, an audit manager in the state Auditor General's Tallahassee office, said Friday that the state's next FSDB audit is in the spring.

"We will be going back in the spring and will review our audit from the prior period at that time and do some follow up procedures," he said.

He said the supplemental report from the school had been received but the staff would not have further comment on it because he said the office has no responsibility for a private firm's report.

© The St. Augustine Record