'Where did the funds go?': Trumbull considers new probe into school finances

The Long Hill school administration building.

The Long Hill school administration building.

File

TRUMBULL — The town council’s examination into the school system’s finances may not be over, despite a vote to accept the results of an operational review that found widespread faults in the district’s accounting practices.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro addressed the council before Monday’s meeting, citing the “troubling questions” the review had raised and recommended a more in-depth forensic audit.

“This operational audit revealed significant problems with accounting practices and principals, internal controls, and oversight,” she said. “I believe we need a more in-depth financial audit as well.”

The council accepted the report, compiled by Joseph Centofanti of the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, along a party-line vote. Republicans Donna Seidell, Carl Massaro, Lori Schwartz, Steven Lemoine and Tony Scinto voted against accepting the report. Unaffiliated members Thomas Whitmoyer and Lisa Valenti joined all 14 Democrats in accepting it.

“It was a hard job, the the report was difficult to read at some points, but I think it’s a valuable guidepost going forward,” said Jason Marsh, the council’s majority leader. “We need to do better on a go-forward basis, not just on a look-backward basis. It is incumbent on our Board of Education to look with a critical eye at budgets being put before them. Trust, but verify on budget numbers. I don’t want to end up back here.”

Massaro, the GOP leader on the council, disagreed, saying the report had left him disappointed.

“The need for proper accounting practices is a given, and to read that we need more certainly is a disappointment,” Massaro said. “But I’m still asking a lot of questions why. Without having answers to those questions, it is difficult to move forward.”

For example, Massaro pointed to the report’s conclusion that numerous purchases that should have been put out to bid were not.

“We’re left to question why they weren’t bid, and we didn’t get a clear answer,” he said. “While I appreciate the findings and recommendations, I still have questions.”

Schwartz repeated a criticism she raised at the committee level that Centofanti had not interviewed former school staff members as part of the review.

“A number of findings weren’t fully vetted, and I’m a little disappointed,” she said.

Whitmoyer explained that the current school administration were not Trumbull employees during the period that was reviewed. He said interviewing the former staff was impractical and not necessary given some of the budget reports Centofanti had reviewed.

“People no longer employed by the schools have no obligation to come back (and speak to an auditor),” he said. “The evidence is in the numbers. That’s why he does what he does.”

But Schwartz rejected the idea of commissioning another, more intensive audit, citing the potential cost.

“We already spent $36,000 of taxpayer money on an operational review,” she said. “I’m an advocate of having (a forensic audit), but I feel our limited resources need to be focused on having proper processes in place, not going back and trying to figure out who to point the finger at.”

Tesoro pointed out that a forensic audit would answer many of the questions that she and Massaro had raised.

“Questions such as how did the lunch account go from a surplus of over $600,000 in 2016 to a nearly $100,000 deficit in 2019? Where did those funds go?” she said. “Why was there no budget support or backup for many accounts when the auditor did his review?”

Tesoro acknowledged it was a difficult time to add to a budget, but said a forensic audit would provide good value for the money.

“Given that we are talking about a budget that exceeds $109 million, and given the fact that the audit before you tonight has discovered areas of great concern, the expenditure of some additional funds seems like a wise investment,” she said.

Council member Kevin Shively said a forensic audit would have the additional benefit of providing a more detailed explanation of how the school system’s budget processes failed, and how to prevent it from happening again.

“We can’t separate what we’ve learned from what mistakes have been made in the past,” he said. “We can’t reduce school budgets, so what we go from as a starting point is going to affect every budget that comes after it.”