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February 4, 2004

Audit scathes school for deaf, blind

From: Salt Lake Tribune - Feb 4, 2004

By Shinika A. Sykes
The Salt Lake Tribune

Republican lawmakers criticized the head of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB) on Tuesday when an audit found the Ogden-based facility was not in the red as Superintendent Lee Robinson had reported, but had more than $845,000 in excess expenditures.

The report -- prepared by the Legislative Auditor General Office and presented to the four-member Management Audit Subcommittee -- found that the 1,600-student school's budget was $845,704 in the black, not $510,285 in the red.

The superintendent's erroneous report followed an $880,500 budget reduction imposed by the 2002 Legislature. USDB had claimed that the mandated reduction could not be made without reducing the school's base budget, which meant eliminating some staff members.

But Audit Supervisor James Behumin said USDB administrators had sufficient money to avoid the staff hit. Also, he charged that school employees in 2003 were owed a 6 percent salary increase, but received a 3.8 percent increase instead. Then, the report said, employees in 2004 received a 2.98 percent increase instead of the appropriated 1.47 jump.

"We found no support for the claim made by school officials that most of the surplus fund were legally restricted or otherwise committed," Behumin said. "We found the school had sufficient funds to fully staff its faculty during fiscal year 2003, but instead chose to leave nine positions vacant."

GOP House Speaker Marty Stephens, of Farr West, questioned Robinson about the superintendent's use of the terms "committed," "restricted" and "dedicated credits" to describe the limited discretion he had in deciding how to use the $845,704.

Reading from the report, Stephens noted that it said: "School officials also said they were 'not just statutorily, but constitutionally' required to use the school's year-end funds for certain designated activities."

Added Stephens: "If this is how you characterized the information, why would the [legislative appropriations] committee ever want to take testimony from you again?"

Robinson acknowledged he "misspoke" when using the term "restricted funds." He added: "In my mind, they were 'committed.' "

He acknowledged that there was room for improvements in overseeing USDB's financial reports. "We intend to comply with the audit," said Robinson. "My only intent was always to provide services to the children."

Audit recommendations for USDB

* USDB should develop a spending plan and use it to govern its excess funds.

* Performance measures should be instituted to track student performance.

* The state Board of Education should provide more financial oversight.

* The Legislature should consider placing USDB's fiscal management under the state Office of Education.

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.