Richmond outlines challenges, looks to move school forward
To call Greencastle Superintendent Dr. Lori Richmond's first year on the job a challenge is almost laughable.
Between the discovery of a number of financial irregularities, the hire of a former school board member as athletic director, the firing of the corporation chief financial officer, high turnover on the school board and a general problem of low morale among school staffers, Richmond certainly has to allow, "It's been quite a year."
With rumors and unhappiness swirling around the school district, Richmond spent Thursday evening in a community meeting looking back at her first year on the job.
While some of the problems remain for the corporation, school administrators hope they can get on to the task of moving forward.
"When we get done here today, I want to focus on our kids and our teachers and our bus drivers and our cafeteria staff and our custodial staff who have stuck with it," Richmond said.
But that all came after recapping the problems of the last year.
Richmond took over as Greencastle Community School Corporation superintendent on July 11, 2011. The honeymoon lasted two days.
"On Wednesday, July 13 (2011) I opened a drawer and found some funny stuff," Richmond said. "I started asking questions -- probably some of the same questions you have."
The funny stuff involved unauthorized compensation and benefits for staffers over the past several years. She found 27 issues of raises, extra vacation days, changed hourly rates and changed annuity rates.
One raise was for $9,000, Richmond said, and the only documentation was a white sticky note.
As none had been approved by the school board, every one of them was unlawful.
Richmond said the first thing she did was notify the board, the school attorneys and the State Board of Accounts.
She said the board had two questions throughout the process: "Is it legal?" and "How's it going to affect our staff?"
When things were found to be illegal, the most painful step came -- the board had to decide how to either continue to fund things the corporation could not afford or how to notify staffers they were losing compensation.
In the annuities, for example, there was no choice. For Greencastle teachers, the annuity rate is collectively bargained at 2 percent. Unfortunately, a group of teachers was receiving a 5-percent annuity. A couple had a 7-percent rate.
"I can't say they don't deserve it," Richmond said. "They're good people. But our contract says it has to be 2 percent."
Another case of the superintendent and board having to be the bearers of bad news came in the discovery of large problems with the school's employee health insurance.
The insurance should have been partially self-funded, which meant employees paid part of the cost and the corporation paid part of the cost. This required, by law, a fund that should have had at least $1 million in it.
GCSC had no fund at all.
If the fund is where it needs to be, employees are to receive their premium payments back at the end of the year. With no fund in place at all, there were no refunds in December.
For GCSC employees, this meant employees did not get between $1,000 and $3,000 they were expecting at year's end.
"Do you think that made anybody happy?" Richmond said. "One hundred forty-eight people lost money in December that they were probably planning on."
The school has since moved to a fully funded plan to make sure everything is covered.
Not even retirees were free from the stress, as the school had a problem with unfunded liabilities for retirees. By 2003, all school corporations had to have a plan in place for funding these liabilities.
As a stipulation of the Indiana law, no new employees were to be added to the list after 2003, and all liabilities are to be paid by 2015.
Investigation revealed that 17 people were added after the cutoff date, some should not have been eligible at all and that the school is on the hook to pay until 2026 -- 11 years after the mandated deadline.
The problem put the school board in a position where it could have simply cut off the 17 people not legally eligible. Richmond said they chose to find a way to pay for it.
"You can't just say, 'Stop it,'" Richmond said. Instead, the board voted in December to continue to fund the retirees.
"As people of the community, that was the right thing to do," she said.
The problem now is figuring out how to pay for it. Next year will be the biggest challenge, as the board will have to find a way to fund $352,000 for the retirees.
Add to all these personnel problems what Richmond found to be a culture that was soft on expenditures -- funds in the red, too many credit cards floating around, little oversight from central office -- and the last year has been about bringing in new regulations.
Richmond now has to sign off on all purchase orders.
Following the superintendent's recap of the year, citizens had a chance to ask questions of Richmond as well as Mike Dean and Mike White, the two board members present at the meeting.
One question that came up over and over again was that of morale. Richmond said she understood why staff morale is low and why she is not necessarily popular among staff members.
Annuities were reduced, stipends were taken away, insurance money was not refunded and retirees that staff members knew well were worried about their livelihoods.
"We've had quite an interesting year," Richmond said. "It's hit so many people in so many ways."
She said the only thing she knew to do was to continue to build relationships at GCSC. She plans to continue her open door policy and continue to have open meetings, both with the staff and the community.
Another question raised several times was of the liability of ex-superintendent Bob Green in the financial mess. The problems have been laid largely at his feet.
Both board members said they have been advised that legal action against Green is not likely.
"(Prosecutor) Tim Bookwalter told me personally that there is no criminal intent with Dr. Green," Dean said. "He has looked at it and his staff has looked at it and they say there is no criminal intent."
White added that civil action is also unlikely. The return on a lawsuit would not be worth the court cost, and a ruling in the school's favor is no guarantee.
"Attorneys have told us it's simply symbolic at this point. It's futile," White said.
The authorities also seem to have another reason to not pursue litigation. It was a point made again and again by Richmond, Dean and White.
Their focus is on moving forward.
At meeting's end, they were backed up on this front by Bobby Hopper and Wayne Lewis, two community businessmen who called on their fellow citizens to get behind the board, begin looking forward and support the school.
Even with a few tense moments, it appeared, after more than 2-1/2 hours, that the request White made when he opened the meeting was granted.
"The only thing I ask is that we remain respectful to each other," White said. "And hopefully somebody can walk away with a few answers."