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Letter that detailed woes kept from Fort Worth school board

FORT WORTH -- An audit of the Fort Worth school district's financial reporting found that it lacked important internal controls, proper processes and training and did not reconcile accounts in a timely manner, which could result in inaccurate information in financial statements.

But the Feb. 25 audit management letter detailing the findings was not released to school board members until last week, after one trustee filed an open-records request.

Ann Sutherland, who was elected in May, said she sought the information because she was frustrated that administrators had it in hand for months.

Sutherland, a retired educator and budget analyst, said she was disturbed by what the letter outlined but believes that the staff is working to correct those issues.

"But what I can't understand is that they did not give us this letter," said Sutherland, who campaigned largely on concerns about the district's finances. "It's the board's job and responsibility to get those letters and to review them."

Superintendent Melody Johnson is out of the country and unavailable for comment, a district spokesman said.

Chief Financial Officer Hank Johnson said he takes full responsibility for the delay in releasing the letter, which concerns problems in fiscal 2009. He said he had wanted time to learn about the issues and develop a plan to address them before bringing it to the board.

"I'm a solutions person," Johnson said. "I didn't want to just bring the problems but also solutions."

The audit itself was presented to board members in January, and they briefly discussed some of the problems before they had to approve it so that it could be sent to state officials in Austin. The major problems were outlined in the management letter that the district received in February.

Texas public schools receive external audits annually.

The management letter and the district's response were ready for the board in late April, Hank Johnson said, but officials were focused then on the 2010-11 budget, which had to be approved by the end of June. He said he intended to present the letter at the board's July 20 meeting.

Some trustees said the board allowed him time to review the issues and develop solutions as he was new to the district. The previous CFO, Ron Wilson, left last summer and an interim CFO was in place for nearly half a year until Johnson began in mid-December, around the time the auditors were finishing their review.

Johnson said he would not speculate on why the district lacked so many basic procedures.

But he did say part of the problem was a lack of proper staffing and time spent on the new payroll system, which had glitches.

Johnson said he has changed or implemented many procedures to help keep better tabs on tax money. For example, the auditors have noted several years in a row that the district did not keep a complete and accurate list of fixed assets. He said that list is now nearly complete and will be updated regularly. "We're going to move this ship forward rather quickly," he said.

Board split on release

While most trustees said administrators are working on addressing the issues found, they are split on the letter's release.

Trustee Juan Rangel said he understands that Hank Johnson needed time to review the letter. But the board needed to do its job as well, he said, which means getting information as soon as possible.

"If we can't be transparent because of a failure to receive adequate and timely information, then we are burdened and viewed as being nonresponsive and unreliable," Rangel said.

Trustee Carlos Vasquez said it was another example of how administrators say they want transparency but then withhold information from the public and board members.

"They were trying to bury it and get us to get tired of asking for it, and that's just wrong," Vasquez said.

Trustee Norm Robbins, who is on the board's audit committee along with Sutherland, said no one was trying to hide any information; rather, the timing was the result of too much happening all at once.

"It was just circumstances by where our new CFO had to get up to speed on all the issues that were all very involved, and this warranted some extra time," Robbins said. "There was not a plan to subvert anything or keep anyone in the dark."

Board President Ray Dickerson agreed with Robbins and said the crucial issue is not the timing of the letter's release but what administrators are doing to address the points raised by the auditors.

"The part about the reconciling of bank records really got under my skin," said Dickerson, a banker. "This all occurred under another chief financial officer and the reasons why it got to that point, I don't know, but I'm confident that with Mr. Johnson, we won't see that again."

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700

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