Trumbull school finance audit raises more questions

TRUMBULL — The scope of the school system’s operational review surprised even the person who conducted it.

Joseph Centofanti, a partner with accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, on Wednesday told a joint meeting of the Board of Finance and the town council’s Education Committee that the information he presented in his report was limited by time, among other things.

The review was commissioned by the town council in early 2020 following the discovery of a looming budget shortfall.

“These things are difficult to do by RFP (request for proposal), so I have to bid based on zero information,” Centofanti said. “So at some point it becomes, I could do a lot more work but I’ve already spent 70 hours over my projection. I did what I could but there’s certainly a lot more going on.”

Centofanti spent about two hours answering questions from members of both town panels. The questions covered a variety of topics, including which school officials were responsible for ensuring compliance with state statutes and town policy, potential legal liability and the source of funds that were being transferred between school system accounts without proper Board of Education oversight.

“Normally, it’s the administration that would be responsible for any type of compliance,” Centofanti said. “From a monitoring perspective, it would be the Board of Ed, but those two positions (superintendent and business manager) would report to the Board of Ed.”

Town council member Lori Rosasco-Schwartz, R-3, questioned why former Superintendent Gary Cialfi and former business manager Sean O’Keefe had not been interviewed as part of the review.

“The administration seems to me to be responsible,” she said. “Were those folks contacted?”

Centofanti said he had not spoken to either. O’Keefe resigned in December 2019 and Cialfi took personal leave/early retirement in January 2020.

“My experience is it’s never a productive process once they’re no longer employees,” he said.

Fellow council member Carl Massaro, R-3, followed up with another personnel question, asking whether Centofanti had spoken with current staff about TD Bank loans that had seemingly been used to lease computers, a possible violation of state statutes that give the town’s governing body the right to incur debt.

Centofanti answered that he had examined records provided by the purchasing director.

“I’m not sure I understand the question. It’s pretty black and white,” he said. “Follow the policy. The (former) purchaser didn’t follow the policy.”

Also, the review covered the three years ending June 30 2020, Centofanti said. Most of the current administrative staff have only been in their roles since September.

“The superintendent wasn’t there at that point in time,” he said. “The business manager that was there is no longer there, so the answer is no, I didn’t talk to those people.”

He went on to clarify that “I can clinically see if you followed policy or not. I don’t need to ask.”

Republican board of finance member Elaine Hammers questioned Centofanti’s conclusion that budget transfers had been made without school board approval.

“Did you review the finance committee meetings, which is where they would make the transfers?” she asked.

Centofanti replied he had not.

“They don’t approve the transfers, that’s the Board of Ed,” he said.

The seeming cross examination by the GOP drew a response from First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, an ex-officio member of both boards.

“I think we know why we’re here, it’s to review this report and ask the auditor questions about the report itself,” she said. “I would hope our friends on the other side of the aisle would not try to discredit our auditor for the job he did and therefore to discredit the audit. That’s not why we’re here and I would find that actually horrendous if that were the case.”

Scwartz defended her line of questioning, stating she has 15 years experience working as an auditor.

“The process typically is once audit findings are found they are vetted with the people in charge prior to being released,” she said.

That comment surprised council Chairman Dawn Cantafio, D-1.

“Are audits typically verified by those being audited?” she asked.

Centofanti said he would normally review recommendations with management.

“That’s part of an annual audit,” he said. As far as internal control issues, there’s not really a vetting process because that is what was observed.”

Martin Isaac, a finance board Democrat, was interested in learning whether there were any potential penalties for not following state statutes in budget transfers and borrowing. Centofanti answered that he had never seen the state investigate school board budget transfers or borrowing.

“Even though statutes don’t allow it, it’s somewhat a common practice,” he said.

Centofanti also answered questions on the 39 paraprofessionals who had apparently been hired outside the normal budget process. He told Education Committee Chairman Thomas Whitmoyer, U-2, that finding the exact source of the money that had funded the paras was difficult because the schools were not properly documenting budget transfers.

“If this one (account) is over, there were others that were under, but there was no mapping,” he said. “They overspent the lines and then at the end would have applied excess cost money (from the general fund).

But in conducting his review, Centofanti said he found the current administration and school board to be proactive in taking action to correct some of the problems.

“A lot of these recommendations have been implemented, partially just because you have different people in there now,” he said.