A billboard visible from the I-290 expressway near 25th Avenue advertises for teaching positions in D209. | Maria Maxham, Editor

This article was edited on March 17 to remove language indicating that the former Holmes County Consolidated Schools District CFO was responsible for unreconciled accounts mentioned in the Mississippi State compliance report and to include Ernest Clark’s assertion that issues listed in that report predated his time in the district.

Last week, District 209 Superintendent James Henderson released his “100-Working Days Transition Audit Report,” which included the oft-discussed but not-yet-seen audits on which he based sweeping administrative changes at the special Feb. 27 board meeting. The report was posted to the district’s website with little fanfare.

The audit title page says it was “Reviewed on January 30, 2021,” and during the March 9 board meeting, Henderson said he had supplied it to all board members on that date.

“On Jan. 30, I provided [the audit report] to every board member,” said Henderson during the March 9 meeting. “I’m sure we did.”

But board member Claudia Medina responded that she hadn’t gotten a copy, and at the Feb. 27 board meeting, board member Amanda Grant and Medina both referenced not having seen the audit report yet.

On March 14, the Review spoke to board member Ned Wagner, who said he also had not received the audit report on Jan. 30, although at the retreat the previous day, Henderson had presented some information from the report to the board members. (At a later date, Wagner said he’d forgotten about the report and had actually received it by January 30.)

According to the report, multiple data sources were used, including “observations, interviews, surveys and documents/artifacts.”

Some of the data was prepared internally, but Henderson also brought in help from Holmes County, the district in Mississippi where he formerly served as superintendent.

Ernest Clark, former CFO of Holmes County Consolidated School District, was paid $7,500 by D209 for “transitional audit services” as described in the voucher detail approved by board members at the March 9 meeting.

Clark was appointed to the position of CFO in Holmes County by Henderson, according to a FOIA response to the Review provided by interim superintendent Benjamin Torrey in Holmes County.

Clark officially left the district on Dec. 17, 2020, just eight days after the Mississippi state auditor released a compliance report of the district that revealed widespread financial issues. Clark told the review on March 17 that he left the position voluntarily and that the financial issues in the Mississippi compliance report were problems that occurred prior to him working for the district.

The voucher also includes a payment of $16,000 to Mississippi-based Samac Technology Networking Solutions for “internal audit review and documentation of technology.” Samac has been a district vendor for Holmes County Consolidated Schools, where Henderson previously worked.

According to D209 policy, “purchases of over $5,000, but under $25,000 … shall have the support of at least three (3) written competitive quotations” unless the services or goods are “available from only a single supplier.” In that case, they must include a statement from the administrator verifying that the vendor is “the sole source of those goods or services.”

During the March 9 board meeting, board member Medina questioned the hiring of both Clark and Samac Technologies, stating, “In Chicago, there are so many IT companies. … Why wouldn’t we want to get local people to do this?”

Board member Della Patterson pointed out that it’s not uncommon for superintendents to bring in people they’ve worked with before.

But competitive quotes from other vendors were not provided publicly during the meeting or to the Review, and no statement verifying that the vendors were the sole source were made available either.

On March 8, the Review requested, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), either the three competitive quotes or a statement of sole purpose from the district in regard to both Ernest Clark and Samac and received a response on March 15 that the information wouldn’t be available until March 22.

The Review reached back out to the district to ask if, while waiting for the documentation, the district could simply say whether there were competitive quotes, or the vendors were considered sole-source providers.

“Please be informed that the requested information was presented publicly in the March 9 Board Meeting,” responded Henderson.

The Review replied, “Although the question was asked by board member Medina, and Mr. Paul Starck-King discussed the rules regarding three quotes and sole-source providers in general, no statement was made in regard to these costs specifically. No assertion was made that there were three quotes solicited for Ernest Clark’s or Samac’s services, nor was a statement about them being sole-source providers made. … Did you get three quotes? Or are they considered sole-source providers?”

No response was provided either via email or after leaving a phone message for Henderson around 5 p.m. on March 15.

In suggesting the removal of payments to Clark and Samac Technologies from the list of bills to be approved, Medina brought up the Holmes County audit report but was shut down by board President Rodney Alexander.

“You are out of order,” Alexander said. “I will shut you down every time. It’s not happening. It’s not happening … because this has nothing to do with Holmes County, ma’am.”

Medina and Grant were the sole board members to vote against approval of the bills. Board member Sam Valtierrez was not present for that part of the meeting. Board members Alexander, Patterson, Theresa Kelly and Wagner voted in favor.

The audit report identifies four areas that the district should focus on: academic achievement, technology infrastructure, human resources, and finance and operations.

Academic achievement

The report identifies the top priority as “develop[ing] a shared instructional vision for the district.”

Short term strategies and action steps include developing a new vision statement for the district, which will include “Nothing but the best,” a new theory of action and goals for the district.

Also included in this part of the report is a plan to “review how each position at the central office supports the work of schools” and hold board retreats to work on the transformation and to identify areas in which board improvements can be made.

Long term strategies and action steps include finding ways for “a wide range of stakeholders” to contribute to the new vision of the district, inviting long-term partnerships with colleges, and looking at ways to further partnerships with organizations working on career readiness.

Technology infrastructure

The technology audit is comprehensive, covering operations, network infrastructure, data security and more. Goals include the examination of the current technology program’s “overall ability to facilitate sustainable innovation,” an assessment of the readiness of the district to bring in and adapt to new technology, and a determination of whether there is a need for additional staff or equipment.

“There is a concerning lack of policies, protocols, and documentation for Proviso, specific to technology in general, and the security of data in particular,” states the report. “Our technology team has determined that major administrative leadership functionality is missing from the technology department.”

Recommendations include selecting and using the same management software throughout buildings and departments, instead of the current set-up that includes multiple systems, which allegedly do not interface well. New policies and procedures should be implemented that detail network design, server systems and passwords for all major systems, and the best practice of supporting all systems with a back-up power supply “and redundant emergency internet failover to support the system if internet outage occurs.”

Emergency data-breach procedures should be developed, and cameras should be moved to be in the best places for surveillance, according to the report.

Human Resources

The plan says, “See PowerPoint presentation” but none is included.

Finance and Operations

Recommendations include:

–      Considering outsourcing security

–      Restructuring the organizational chart to ensure more oversight in several areas

–      Monthly account reconciliations ensured by CFO

–      Development of a “plan for succession” so all positions are staffed at all times

–      Development of a manual regarding internal invoice process and procedures

–      Establishment of formal review process of work performed by architectural and engineering firms

Read the full report at pths209.org/Page/5245.