Auditor general: Poor management cost West York district almost $200K
When it comes to following the law, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale makes a distinction between the "letter of the law" and the "spirit of the law."
West York Area School District officials complied with minimum standards established by the Public School Code and Sunshine Act in approving a separation agreement for former high school principal Janet May, according to an audit of the district.
But at a news conference reviewing the audit at the York County Administrative Center on Wednesday, Oct. 31, the auditor general admitted that though the district did nothing illegal, officials violated the spirit of the law by omitting information.
The district failed to disclose the costs associated with the agreement to the school board and the public — not even knowing the full range of those costs before signing it.
DePasquale said he presented district officials with the total cost of $194,981, which was higher than they had previously thought, but after reviewing the methodology that led to that number, they agreed with the assessment.
"I believe the majority — if not all — board members did not know the fiscal impact of the decision," DePasquale said.
Unnecessary costs: The audit, covering the period between July 1, 2015, and April 30, 2018, showed the agreement will cost the district $167,898 more than would have been incurred if May resigned or retired on Feb. 20.
May was demoted to assistant principal of the middle school, receiving the position's maximum salary on administrative leave until her upcoming retirement March 7, 2019.
Had May separated from the district more than eight months ago, costs would have instead totaled $27,083, the audit states.
Unused sick leave — at $50 per day — was the "most significant component" of the extra costs, according to the audit, increasing from $5,750 to $97,365 with the additional time.
Other costs that have built up since February included holidays, administrative leave, increased health insurance contributions for the principal's tenure as an active employee during the period of the agreement and retirement contributions.
"This is an example of failure of financial governance," said state Rep. Seth Grove, R- Dover Township, noting that the district could have paid for 2½ teachers with that money, among other things.
District officials did not dispute the cost but disagreed with the auditor's claim that there was "inadequate transparency," stating in the audit that the board publicly shared at a Feb. 27 meeting that May would be using accumulated leave until retirement, and copies of the agreement were distributed to anyone who requested them.
"The district's school board takes its public stewardship of taxpayer funds seriously, and it did not enter into this agreement lightly," management stated in the audit.
DePasquale said he received numerous calls and emails asking him to look into it.
"This is one of those ones that you couldn't go to a diner" without hearing complaints from the public, he said.
Taxpayers have a right to know, he said, and it also helps public officials make better decisions because they can't take action until they know the fiscal impact to the state.
No middle ground: Regarding the reason for May's release, DePasquale could not find one.
May had "glowing performance reviews" for 10 years, he said.
Though certain terms of the separation agreement were confidential, if she were doing something wrong, there is "no middle ground" — it should have been documented, he said.
He's dealt with separation agreements for school superintendents, but this is a first for a management employee with no contract — meaning there was no obligation for a buyout.
"It's real simple," he said. "Do your job. Manage your employees better."
Because it covers new ground, it's also not addressed legislatively, he said.
The frustrating element is that no changes made to the law going forward will bring the money back.
"The students of West York got absolutely nothing for that," he said.
Other findings: Other personnel changes made after then-newly appointed Superintendent Todd Davies joined the district in December were found to be routine with new leadership.
Just two other findings were listed in the audit, including over-reported retirement earnings for three former employees totaling $13,858 and a failure to update the district's sexual harassment policy for nine years.
The district also failed to complete employee training in the policy over the period of the audit or schedule any training for the 2018-19 school year.
Looking at sexual harassment policies is a practice DePasquale added to his audits in the last couple of years, and issues are growing, he said.
He's found multiple districts that either don't have policies or training or don't have school board members trained — most recently seen with a former school board member allegedly harassing a superintendent in Scranton.
Though West York reported "very few instances" of complaints, DePasquale noticed that districts with better policies and training in place had higher incidents, a sign that more were speaking up.
The district agreed that though its current policy "fully complies with state and federal laws," a review of that policy, notification procedures and possibly adding a complaint tracking system were worthwhile, according to the audit.
Officials intend to follow up on the suggestion to add training as well, the audit states.