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Audit finds financial deficiencies at PB school district

<p>(From left) Pine Bluff School Board President Herman Horace, district finance director Pam Winkler and Superintendent Linda Watson listen to lawmakers during a legislative committee Thursday at the state Capitol. (Rob Moritz photo)</p>

(From left) Pine Bluff School Board President Herman Horace, district finance director Pam Winkler and Superintendent Linda Watson listen to lawmakers during a legislative committee Thursday at the state Capitol. (Rob Moritz photo)

LITTLE ROCK — A state audit of the Pine Bluff School District presented to lawmakers Thursday found significant weaknesses in the district’s internal controls over financial reporting and a number of major programs.

Among other findings in the audit for 2010-2011, auditors found 52 receipts torn from the district’s business office receipt book and discovered that 36 separate pieces of equipment purchased between July 2009 and June 2011 were not being used. Auditors found the items stored in their original boxes.

“This is very discouraging, ” said Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, chairman of the Committee on Educational Institutions of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

The audit also raised questions about the school board’s decision to pay former Superintendent Jerry Payne $10,000 for moving expenses in 2011. Payne was fired by the school board earlier this year.

Payne submitted expense receipts to the board totaling $19,308, but a review of the receipts found that most were unrelated to moving and were for such things as furniture, appliances, linens and home décor items. The only receipt that did qualify as a moving expense was $396 for a rental moving van, according to the audit.

In February, at the board’s request, Payne reimbursed the district more than $9,000.

Pine Bluff School Board President Herman Horace told lawmakers Thursday that most of the deficiencies found in the audit occurred while Payne was superintendent, but some occurred at the end of Frank Anthony’s tenure as superintendent.

Payne, who replaced Anthony in July 2011 after Anthony retired, was fired by the board in May.

When asked Thursday why Payne was fired, Horace declined comment, saying “it’s under litigation.”

Anthony was appointed to head the Dollarway School District in June after the state took over the district because its high school had failed to meet accreditation standards for two consecutive years.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked Horace Thursday if Payne or Anthony ever discussed the Pine Bluff district’s financial problems with the school board during meetings.

Horace, who was elected to the board in 2008, said he could not remember if Anthony ever mentioned them. Pamela Winkler, the district’s director of business and finance for just over a year, said she tried to bring them to the board’s attention but Payne “stopped us from discussing each individual item.”

Linda Watson, who was named interim superintendent of the Pine Bluff district in June, said she has reviewed all of the audit’s findings and that they are being addressed.

“I have looked over all of it to make sure we have corrective action plans in place and I’ve even asked for an audit for (2011-2012) to see how those things have rolled out to make sure we are not making the same mistakes again,” she said. “I have reviewed this audit with senior staff so they can work with the people in their department and I am hopeful that … these things have been corrected, but I’m trying to ensure that you won’t see me down here in this situation again.”

Also Thursday, lawmakers heard that the former computer technology coordinator for the Hazen School District has been charged with one count of accepting gratuities and kickbacks.

Scott Belford, who was arrested in June, allegedly coordinated the school district’s purchase of computers for $173,244. An audit by the state last year determined that the purchase was made without bids.

Kim Williams, deputy legislative auditor, told the committee Thursday that after last year’s audit, a state police investigation determined that Belford purchased the computers from a Texas vendor then received $18,000 from the vendor to install the equipment even though he was already employed by the school district.

Williams said Belford worked for the Hazen School District for one year and resigned June 30.

Belford is to appear at an October hearing on the felony charged in Prairie County Circuit Court, Williams said.

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