School District facing penalties for inflating number of kids bused

The state Department of Education is likely to withhold $1.8 million in transportation funding from the Indian River County School District for inflating the number of kids carried to and from their classes each day on school buses, according to School Board Chairperson Laura Zorc.

Zorc said she got the $1.8 million figure from recently-resigned Finance Director Julianne Pelletier. “I believe her numbers over anyone else’s,” Zorc said.

“Ultimately it will all come out of the general fund to make up for the shortfall in state funding,” Zorc said. “It’s a significant punch to the district’s general fund balance.”

About $600,000 of the holdback is for incorrectly counting or not counting riders during the school year ending June 31, 2017, as shown in the Auditor General’s September 2018 audit statement.

Most of the remaining $1.2 million is for claiming 2,350 more riders than actually rode buses during the first part of the current school year, a discrepancy still being investigated by the Department of Education.

The DOE surveys bus riders four times a year and flags rider counts that show more than a 5 percent variance from the prior year.

Zorc said it is likely the DOE will withhold the rest of this school year’s transportation funding, which was supposed to total $3.7 million.

The $1.8 million cost for incorrect transportation numbers was revealed by happenstance, not by the School Board, district staff or Superintendent Mark Rendell.

Tracking a rumor that Pelletier had sent board members a document detailing a number of financial problems at the school district before she resigned, Vero Beach 32963 requested all email exchanges with board members from Dec. 4 to Dec. 11. The part of the request that was fulfilled revealed the problem in an email string between Pelletier and new Board Member Jacqueline Rosario

“I was told the transportation numbers reported this fall semester 2018 were incorrect, as they were in the spring of 2018. … Have we been notified that our numbers were incorrectly reported once again?” Rosario asked. “Finally, did we ever pay the fine for the last error found in the summer’s audit report? If not, where can I find this allocation in the budget book?”

Pelletier responded the next day, “Transportation did include me in a meeting to explain that their reporting … is [still] not correct.

“I will forward to you the email documenting the error from the DOE [Department of Education]. I am unaware of the timing of the financial impact of this, but I know that it will be a large amount as the discrepancy indicates approximately one-third of reported riders.

“Regarding the summer’s audit report, we did not pay the fine. … I believe that this is roughly $600,000, and it was not included in the budget book.”

Rosario did not respond to a request for comment.

Zorc said there has been no public discussion by the board of the transportation reporting errors because “the board is not being informed … [although Juli Pelletier] has brought several things to light in the last few months.

“Being we continuously have faulty reporting revealed through the audits, the obvious question becomes, ‘Why is the Superintendent allowing this to continue?’” Zorc said. “I can assure you I will be revisiting this issue.”

Part of the cost should come as no surprise to the School Board. During budget talks last summer, then-Assistant Superintendent of Finances Carter Morrison warned transportation audit findings would cost about $625,000.

He put the cost into the preliminary budget. Shortly after Morrison’s warning, Superintendent Rendell sent Morrison home, with pay, for supposed misconduct on another financial matter. He accused him of transferring $2.3 million into 12 separate schools’ salary accounts without his permission.

Over the next five months, Rendell had the absent Morrison investigated. At the conclusion of the investigation, Rendell wanted to demote Morrison to “transportation coordinator,” burying it in the consent agenda at the first meeting of three new board members, Nov. 20. The board unburied the item and postponed action until Dec. 11, but by then Rendell had changed his mind, reinstating Morrison to his old position. The next day Morrison and Pelletier resigned.

The rumor was partially confirmed by the district’s public information officer, Brenda Davis. She refused to fill part of 32963’s public record request, citing an exemption for documents related to an ongoing investigation, thereby confirming such documents exist.

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