AUSTIN — In response to findings from a recent audit by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, Austin Area School District is implementing clear and substantial corrective actions regarding transportation policies and personnel issues.
The audit, which examined records from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2018, found that AASD “applied best practices and complied in all significant respects, with certain relevant state laws, regulations, contracts and administrative procedures, except for two findings.”
The first finding determined AASD failed to ensure that contracted bus drivers were qualified and cleared to transport students, “putting its students at risk of harm.”
The audit documented that all required credentials and clearances were not obtained and filed for each driver prior to the beginning of the school year. Specifically, four drivers were missing the FBI clearance, two were missing the PSP clearance, one was missing the Pa. child abuse history clearance and six were missing the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s arrest/conviction report and certification form.
Furthermore, the audit determined one driver had convictions, specifically multiple second degree felonies, requiring a 10-year look back period, as well as a few misdemeanors, requiring a five-year look back period, of which occurred in 2007. It required a period of time to elapse from the date of expiration of the individual’s sentence for each conviction, before the individual would be eligible for such employment.
“The problem was not with the bus driver himself,” Kimberly Rees, superintendent, told the Potter Leader-Enterprise. “His felony was over 10 years ago and he is eligible to drive. The problem was with our procedure in reviewing clearances.”
The audit committee for the Austin Area school board held an executive session on Tuesday, Jan. 21 to discuss personnel matters addressed in the audit, then discussed revising the clearance reviewing procedures during a regular committee meeting.
“We currently have two bus drivers, one van driver and three substitute drivers,” Rees said. “The two current bus drivers have been bus drivers for the district since 2003. Currently, all paperwork is up-to-date with one exception; one substitute bus driver has not submitted the PDE-6004, but has not driven this school year. As a district, we understand the importance of proper paperwork … at no time do we feel that we were putting students at risk of harm.”
“The audit report has made us look at some procedures,” Rees said. “We will use this information to improve and move our district into the future with a positive and more structured plan.”
The second finding determined that AASD failed to hire a permanent superintendent for more than six years and may have violated public school educators retirement system requirements, when it employed an annuitant continuously during that time period.
The district has a letter from PSERS, dated May 17, 2012, that states: ‘You (the district) have requested approval to continue to employ the annuitant in an emergency capacity as acting superintendent during the 2011-2012 school year or beyond. If a permanent superintendent cannot be hired, Austin Area School District may continue to employ the annuitant during the ongoing effort to hire a superintendent,” Rees said.
“The district ran an open advertisement for a superintendent on the PA-Educator.net website (and) we received several informal inquiries from candidates who indicated the minimal salary requirements they would consider,” Rees said. “Since we could not afford the salary requirements, they were not interested in the position. During this timeframe, a performance audit had the district in a decreasing operating position and decreasing fund balance, (making it) hard to attract a candidate to the school.”
Rees, who was hired in August 2018, added that since that time, the district has landed in a better financial standing.
In spite of these two findings, Rees told the Potter Leader-Enterprise the audit did note AASD complied with other, previous audit recommendations.
“The Austin Area School District is a great little school district that strives to ensure that students are safe and well prepared for the world they will enter when they graduate,” Rees said.
According to the official audit report, “during our current audit review, we noted the district did implement our prior recommendations (to) monitor key financial indicators to try and prevent further fiscal challenges. The district’s fund balance has steadily increased.”
Following the executive session Tuesday, the audit committee, made up of Rees, Jerry Sasala, Britta Hooftallen, Nancy Glover, AASB President Darwin Reese and Pam Terrette, reviewed the audit report and agreed on several corrective actions.
One action is advising the PDE by Feb. 10 that a superintendent has been hired and that the AASD will comply with the audit’s recommendations for future related issues. Another action is naming Terrette as the new transportation director as of November 2019.
Terrette has completed a six-week elements of transportation class through the Pa. association of school business officials, as well as ridden all of the bus routes to maximize subsidy while minimizing travel time for students.
Terrette said another corrective action is implementing a new tracking system, now in place, that will notify her of when clearances and qualifications need renewed and that a detailed transportation hiring and record-keeping procedure will be ready for review and approval at the Feb. 10 AASB meeting.
Resolutions for said corrective actions will be approved, pending public input, at the Feb. 10 AASB meeting. The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. to allow for ample public comment.