School system should take fresh approach to finances

We are glad to report a work session is scheduled for next week regarding the $500-per-staffer supplement check Randolph County School District employees did not receive in December.

These checks, which were cut annually for several years during the holiday month, were not disbursed this season. This failed payment, likened to a “Christmas bonus,” was discussed earlier this week at the district’s Board of Education meeting.

Board members were urged during Tuesday’s BOE session by Frank Caputo, staff representative of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, to revisit this supplemental funding.

To recap, from 2011 to 2015, district employees received $500 each holiday season, totaling about $300,000 annually. That money was not distributed as additional personnel stipends in 2016, but rather it was allocated “for other things,” Superintendent of Schools Pam Hewitt told The Inter-Mountain.

District officials maintain the funding comes from Senate Bill 541, which was passed by the West Virginia Legislature in 2007. Its suggested use was to help school boards within the Mountain State attract and retain qualified educators. Yet, the money wasn’t passed on to district personnel as a stipend or a supplemental check until 2011.

The years when the supplements were awarded happened to overlap when the school district had an excess levy in effect for the county. The excess levy raised an additional $2.9 million each of those five years.

The district failed three times — most recently in the November 2016 General Election — to pass a new levy, even one that had been reduced to only four years in length. One of the many points of contention for opponents of the excess levy was that teachers supposedly received payment for voting in favor of the measure.

No, but it now is accurate to report that employees only received this supplement, stipend, bonus — whatever the district wants to call it — during the course of the levy. No levy clearly appears to equate to no $500.

We have to question who made this decision, why and when. We also have to ask when and how administrative personnel and district employees were informed no stipend would be paid in December.

Tuesday’s meeting appears to have been when the board first learned about the missed December payments. Any financial decision involving several hundred thousand dollars should have been brought to the board’s attention much earlier. To have a superintendent exert unilateral decision-making power over expenditures of this magnitude is concerning, if that indeed was the case.

The work session that now is scheduled for Thursday should have taken place well in advance of rescinding the stipend.

It is possible that this was a necessary decision.

It is possible the district is in dire financial straights.

It is possible there was no punitive element to the decision to withhold this extra fiscal boost at the end of the year and was not a way to further illustrate the failed excess levy’s negative impact.

The problem is we never really know.

Why? These discussions didn’t occur publicly, in the light of day and before the board. They were not agenda items that could have prompted either media or citizens to ask questions.

District officials were within their rights to have handled this matter in this manner, but it certainly provided them with no public relations boost. That is something much needed after an embattled three-try bid to get a new excess levy passed by voters. Each subsequent attempt caused more contempt within the voting base.

The Inter-Mountain — on this very editorial page — supported two of those three passage attempts. However, as with this stipend issue, with each attempt, information from district officials became more vague and less readily available.

It’s too late to go back and rerun these three previous elections. District officials, along with assistance from board members, can, though, take a fresh approach with regard to transparency in all matters financial.

It’s a new year and with it comes a new opportunity to ensure the district’s employees, board members and area residents all have access to vital information early and often — especially when it comes to spending or allocating taxpayer dollars.