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Committee chair calls for audit of SPLOST programs

Kimberley Euston, chairwoman of the Cobb school board’s Facilities and Technology Review Committee, does not want to see the proposed education SPLOST IV go down in flames because of voter distrust the way the TSPLOST did in July.

To that end, Euston raised a number of concerns during Monday’s F&T meeting, including calling for a forensic audit of the system’s SPLOST programs to give residents confidence that the collected funds were being spent as promised.

School board member Alison Bartlett, who serves as liaison to the committee, said an education SPLOST IV, which would span from Jan. 2014 to Dec. 2018 if voters approve it in March, is projected to collect $717.8 million, compared to SPLOST III, which spans from Jan. 2009 to Dec. 2013 and is projected to collect $631.5 million.

Euston, who was appointed to the committee by school board Chairman Scott Sweeney, said the school district’s compliance and performance audit of SPLOST III gave her pause.

Euston pointed out that $33 million in SPLOST III was used for routine painting, an expense that was flagged in the audit. The district must ensure SPLOST expenditures remain within the boundaries of the state law for capital and education improvements, she said.

“I work for an auditing firm as part of my job,” said Euston, director of marketing and sales for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“I’m not an auditor, nor do I play one on TV, but I think it is very important for the tax payers to have full transparency with SPLOST. There is more transparency now than with the other SPLOST notebooks, but we need to make sure that every project in the notebook is what is legal and that we’re doing everything that we can by what the definition of SPLOST is. …

“This new notebook has over 50 percent of the proposed projects that are maintenance,” she said. “A forensic audit could guide us more, not even for SPLOST IV but even take a deeper dive at SPLOST I, II and III and see what was spent, how much was spent and were the projects correct.”

Committee member Wayne Brown, an engineer appointed by board member Kathleen Angelucci, also called for a forensic audit.

“The amount of maintenance we need is enormous for these schools, and we’re going to spend money on a concession stand and some of these items, and I just want to make sure that it’s legal,” Brown said.

Bartlett said the district’s attorneys were reviewing the SPLOST IV notebook to ensure the projects are legal.

“What I’m hearing is we need to make sure what we’re doing is legal,” Bartlett said. “Our attorneys are paid to do that, and that’s what we hold them accountable for, so in that respect, no (on a SPLOST IV forensic audit). Do we need to do an audit on our previous projects to see like SPLOST III after the work is done have we done what led up to the notebook? I would say yes.”

Another hot button issue raised at Monday’s meeting is that of a career academy. Bartlett said district administrators originally proposed two $30 million career academies in SPLOST IV to be built at yet-to-be revealed locations, but Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is now proposing just one.

The $30 million earmarked for the second school was put into project lists that came from schools and staff, she said.

Euston said it may be better to spread the career programs among the schools, rather than spend $30 million on a career academy.

“I met with the principal of one of the high schools in my post, and I learned that there is room in auto shop,” she said. “They only have 40 students enrolled, and their capacity could be 120.”

Brown said that’s what he saw in a tour of the schools in his post.

“We saw a lot of these career paths — plumbing for example, construction, culinary arts — being taught in the high schools already, and I think that could be expanded on without the individual high school,” Brown said.

Bartlett said she has a number of questions about spending $30 million on a single career academy.

“Where’s the business model?” Bartlett asked. “We have transportation cost issues, we have administration cost issues, we have a new building. I have a problem for me justifying building the building at this time when I have toured my schools and realized that we’re not maintaining what we have. We have $1.2 billion in assets. If you just go really low-end, if 10 percent, we should be spending over $120 million a year just to maintain, and at this time our budget is $3 (million) to $4 million.”

Euston also raised concerns over the possibility of SPLOST III projects being transferred to SPLOST IV, noting that tax receipts are down.

“We have projects that were not technically in the notebook in SPLOST III such as Wheeler High School, which we see change orders for,” Euston said. “The Lassiter theater project, again, something else that was not in the notebook as a 1,200-seat theater, is over budget. I have concerns that we’re not going to have enough money to finish projects that were in the notebook for SPLOST III.”

The timeline is another concern, she said, with the school board set to vote on the SPLOST IV notebook at its work session just next month, even though school administrators are set to reveal an updated SPLOST IV list later this week.

“It’s going to be completely new when we receive it,” Euston said. “Which basically gives this committee three weeks to make a recommendation on are these projects legal … are they prioritized based upon needs or are we making sure that the projects are equitable throughout the entire county?”

Brown said it will require an enormous amount of the committee’s time to have a recommendation for the school board before it votes next month.

Bartlett said state law requires a SPLOST vote in either March or November. The school board is aiming to have the vote in March to avoid a three-month gap in revenue collections, she said.

Yet Euston said better to have a few months’ gap in funding than for voters to reject the education SPLOST just as they did with the TSPLOST.

“The concerns that I have shared with Mr. Sweeney directly is that it is better to perhaps lose the revenue for a few months and have a SPLOST pass in November,” Euston said.

(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal. Written by Jon Gillooly, October 23, 2012. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – F T chair calls for SPLOST audit)

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