School district continues to pay down debt but Chiles payroll issue raises red flag

·3 min read

The payroll issues that spurred Leon County Schools to suspend a high school principal raised a red flag in the district's 2020-2021 external audit.

Purvis Gray, a certified public accounting firm who wrote the report, says they were notified by Leon County Schools of "a circumvention of approved payroll policies and processes."

The reportable finding refers to Chiles High School Principal Joe Burgess, who was under investigation for allegedly using Advanced Placement funds to pay teachers and others for extra work that wasn't related to AP classes without documentation.

"Without proper oversight over the assignment, funding source, and timekeeping related to hourly as-needed positions and pay, District payroll policies can be circumvented and may result in employees improperly receiving unearned or unapproved pay," the report says.

Superintendent Rocky Hanna said the payroll issue was a loophole that was being taken advantage of and the district had already put implemented new rules so it wouldn't happen in the future.

Burgess, who was penalized with a two-week suspension, appealed the district's decision. In January, however, a state administrative law judge agreed with the districts decision.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna shares her appreciation with healthcare workers at Capital Regional Medical Center Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna shares her appreciation with healthcare workers at Capital Regional Medical Center Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.

The judge found that Burgess "had no ill will" in using the money, calling the suspension "reasonable under the circumstances."

Stephen Webster, Burgess' attorney, appealed the decision with the school district in late January and said he vows to take the case to the First District Court of Appeal if the suspension is upheld.

Parents have sent letters to Leon County Schools defending Burgess and criticizing the district for punishing a principal who "appears he is being singled out for a 'possible' error."

"Any reasonable organization would not treat a highly qualified, performing team member in this disrespectful manner," a parent said in an email. "Joseph Burgess is a proven principal and highly respected by students, parents, and teachers."

This reportable finding was one of two for the 2020-21 school year.

The audit also found a difference between the fixed asset subsidiary ledgers in the accounting system and the district's annual financial report, but attributed this to the software and irregular maintenance.

Leon County Schools received the highest level of assurance in their external audit of their financial records, according to the accounting firm.

The Leon County School Board meets Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
The Leon County School Board meets Tuesday, August 10, 2021.

More school district updates

The total assigned and unassigned fund balance is 14.2% of the total general fund revenues, which suggests that the district is in good shape financially, said a representative of Purvis Gray at this week’s school board meeting.

Some $17 million of Cares Act funds were used to cover some general expenses like payroll. The funds helped expenses posted to the general fund come in slightly lower than projected.

Long term debt has been reduced to approximately $137 million, which is a reduction in debt of approximately $104 million in the past five years. The district is on track to be debt free by 2027-228.

The $10 million the district paid for Chromebooks has also been paid off.

Last year, the district had zero findings, but Superintendent Rocky Hanna said he is still proud of the results.

"But there's still work to be done, we can never rest," Hanna said.

Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Chiles payroll issue raises red flag on Leon County Schools audit