Fort Worth school board votes not to hire outside forensic auditor

FORT WORTH -- School board members voted Tuesday night not to hire an outside auditor to look into the series of computer glitches that occurred last year when the district switched payroll systems.

Internal auditors found that the district overpaid employees and former employees about $1.5 million.

Trustees voted 5-1 against hiring a forensic auditor. Trustee Juan Rangel voted no. Trustees T.A. Sims, Ann Sutherland and Carlos Vasquez were absent.

Rangel said the motion, by Trustee Norm Robbins, should not have been made until Sutherland and Vasquez were present. They have been vocal in their concerns that problems could be deeper than what internal auditors found.

"I think this motion is unfair and doesn't allow them to have a voice," Rangel said. Trustees owe it to taxpayers to do a more involved audit, he said.

Board President Ray Dickerson said a forensic audit is unnecessary because internal auditors have outlined problems and they are being addressed.

External auditors performing the annual review of district finances did random testing of financial transactions and gave the district the highest finding of an "unqualified opinion."

"In my opinion, [a forensic audit] is chasing a ghost," Dickerson said.

Dickerson said Vasquez and Sutherland have had opportunities to express their concerns about the forensic audit in various meetings.

Trustee Judy Needham said nothing justified spending money on the outside audit, which administrators said could cost up to $500,000.

"We need to be careful with every single penny we commit," Needham said.

Among the problems the internal auditors found was that the payroll system was implemented before staff was fully trained and before procedures for catching mistakes were in place. Also, outdated information and incorrect pay rates were entered into the new system, the internal audit found.

Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, consultants presented recommendations they have identified to improve the payroll system, such as additional coordination between the finance and technology departments, more training and better procedures, such as establishing a standard way to identify former employees and remove them from the payroll system.

Last year, some people who had not worked for the district in more than a year received paychecks. Hank Johnson, the district's chief financial officer, said staff members were still removing the names of former employees from the system but said safeguards are in place to make sure they are not paid.

Johnson said his department is implementing or addressing the recommendations. He has said many issues found in the internal audit have already been improved or addressed.

"As long as I'm here, I'm committed to make these things work," he said.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700