BOE, public respond to Comptroller’s report

Published 4:42 pm Thursday, September 6, 2018

A whirlwind of emotions was felt this week inside the Elizabethton City Schools Central Office.

City Board of Education members and Director of Schools Dr. Corey Gardenhour held a workshop Wednesday evening to discuss the recent findings made by the Tennessee Comptroller during its investigation of the system’s handling of cash in different departments, ranging from bookkeeper, the athletic department and student support groups.

Contentious at times, Wednesday’s meeting allowed the BOE and system a chance to openly discuss the investigation which involved several agencies from local enforcement to the U.S. federal government.

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Gardenhour explained the sequence of events that led up to the Comptroller’s investigation. After receiving word from the U.S. Postal Service – which caused the federal government to get involvement – about someone using the post meter machine for personal use, the school system started to look into the issue. Auditors with Blackburn, Childers & Steagall, county and city law enforcement started to get involved with the investigation as the school system looked at support groups and other departments within the system. Once the other problems were made noticeable to the system, the Comptroller was notified.

The Comptroller’s report noted that

• The EHS Athletic Department had deficiencies with cash collection and disbursements from concessions and ticket sales.

• The EHS bookkeeper used the school’s mail meter machine for personal use and maintained an unauthorized petty cash fund.

• Some school support organizations had multiple operating deficiencies.

Gardenhour added the school system has looked at different ways to rectify the issues. The system recently held training with roughly 40-plus individuals from school support organizations last week.

With the board acknowledging the issues, members of the public also made their voices heard. One of those in attendance was Eddie Pless, one of the two co-athletic directors that was let go by the school system. Pless and Mike Wilson were relieved of duties following an internal investigation made by the school system involving the athletic department.

Pless added that his family has taken it hard since the decision of his termination. He added that during his time with the school, no money has been taken and that he wouldn’t do that to the system he served for 30-plus years. Former Director of Schools Ed Alexander asked Gardenhour if any money was missing, which Gardenhour replied back that it would be hard to notice due to receipts not always being kept.

Trudy Colbaugh and Catherine Cusack also addressed the board about support groups. Both mentioned they had never been trained in board policies and were not involved with Finance Director Beth Wilson.

When asked about the manuals, Wilson said manuals were issued in 2008 due to state law and that over the course of time, certain groups had not passed down manuals and policies to newer members.

Gardenhour added the training was part of the system’s chance to help support groups and that the school does not handle the policies and procedures. BOE members Phil Isaacs, Tyler Fleming and Susan Peters all commended and thanked the work of the ladies that offered the services voluntarily.

Support did continue for Pless and Wilson with one individual calling for the resignation of Gardenhour and another pledging to donate money for Pless and Wilson via GoFundMe.

Grover May was one of the BOE members that shared in frustration that was created by the process. On behalf of the board, May apologized. He indicated the Board and system could only do and say so much due to the investigation. The system was requested to stay quiet during the investigation by the Comptroller to not interfere with the report.

While the meeting did have its ebbs and flows, May thanked everyone in attendance for coming in to discuss the issue and having an open conversation about an issue that has impacted the community. He added that even though it’s been rough, the system has made great strides for the benefits of the children in the community.