July 25, 2008

Audit Leads Texas Agency to Put Cleburne School District on Short Leash

By Martha Deller, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Jul. 25--It's definite. Unless they get a waiver, Cleburne school officials have 30 days to repay $362,304.31 in federal grants that they spent without following rules.

And the district cannot spend future federal grants without authorization.

That's what the Texas Education Agency told Cleburne Superintendent Ronny Beard on Tuesday in a follow-up to its July 14 audit report.

On Monday night, school trustees will discuss whether to seek a repayment waiver, Beard said.

TEA has labeled the district a "high-risk grantee" that must get agency approval before spending its federal grant money, more than $4 million a year. The restriction could last a year or more -- until TEA is satisfied that the district has corrected problems identified in the 170-page audit report.

Complaints from district critics Harold Gentry and Alden Nellis triggered the 16-month audit. Corrective actions and sanctions recommended by the auditors are being considered by several TEA divisions.

Beard is most worried that TEA will order the district to hire a certified public accountant to conduct a more extensive audit. That could cost $250,000 to $500,000, he said.

The district might have to repay even more grant money if other problems are uncovered, he said.

"That would be extremely detrimental to the district's ability to aggressively pursue improvements to student academic performance," Beard said.

Beard said he did not expect that another audit would find more items such as a $10,000 staff retreat or expensive travel. That type of expenditure made up only $140,000 of the misspent grant money, he said.

"Schools are not accustomed to being audited to this letter of the law," Beard said. "It's quite frightening. Schools need to sit up and pay attention."


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