UPDATE: One day after the Lynchburg City School Board announced it would be returning $862,000 in funding from city council, at-large Lynchburg City Councilwoman Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a phone interview returning the money is a "strong statement to being good stewards of the public education funding given" to the school division, and she would "support efforts and provide assistance as needed" as the division works to "strengthen LCS even more."
On Friday Tweedy said she feels Lynchburg City Schools leadership, Superintendent Crystal Edwards and the Lynchburg City School Board have "stood behind their commitment to being transparent and working collaboratively with city council."
Tweedy said expectations for Edwards were "set early on that we wanted a strong, more effective and more efficient school division and a successful school division for students, staff and really the whole community."
"The superintendent in her first year to her credit understood the charge before her. She had no problem digging deeper and establishing new review processes. ... I'm pleased they have reviewed the budget even beyond when the normal budget process winds down to say they weren't going to rest on what they submitted," Tweedy said.
PREVIOUSLY: Lynchburg City Schools is returning $862,000 in funding from city council after finding differences between next year’s budget projections and the current budget.
In late April after much debate, city council approved allocating $862,000 for fiscal year 2020 to the division so LCS staff could receive an average 5% raise by Sept. 1.
But after finding “some differences between the 2019-20 budget projections and the current budget that had resulted in an over-estimation of funds needed to support salary increases and living wage adjustments for our staff,” the division has decided to return the money to council, according to a Thursday news release from the division.
Lynchburg City School Board chair and spokesperson Susan Morrison said in a phone interview Thursday evening the board felt returning the money to council was “the right decision.”
“We found money that could fund what we needed to do for salaries and did not need this extra allocation from city council, so there was no question about it. It was the right thing to do,” Morrison said.
Morrison said Superintendent Crystal Edwards notified her June 7 that the division found “money in our budget that we did not know that we had and that we could cover the salary increase.”
Through “informal polling” and individual conversations Morrison had with each board member, Morrison said the board was supportive of Edwards’ idea to return the funding.
Morrison said the school board and the division won’t know the precise amount of additional money beyond what is needed to cover salaries until an outside audit has been conducted.
The division will hire a “third-party consulting firm to conduct a forensic audit of our financial practices in an effort to enhance our fiscal operations,” the release said.
LCS spokesperson Cindy Babb said the division doesn’t have a timeline for when the consulting firm will conduct the audit, but it will “provide an update once the audit is complete.”
Morrison said although the audit will happen “sooner rather than later,” the process requires “a very specific person” who understands the various funding sources of the division such as federal grants, Standards of Quality funding, local funding and more.
“We get funding from lots of different pots. We have to make sure we have the right person who understands all of this. Dr. Edwards is working hard to find that person along with other people in that position that can help us,” Morrison said.
At-large Councilman Randy Nelson said via text message he was out of town and has “not seen the school division’s statement.”
At-large Councilwoman Mayor Treney Tweedy and Ward I Councilwoman MaryJane Dolan did not immediately respond for comment.
Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said in a phone interview Thursday he’s “very delighted” LCS is returning the funding.
“For many years I’ve said we’ve given them too much. I’m delighted the new superintendent agrees that they have so much money, and they’re giving it back. I’m very thankful,” Helgeson said.
Ward II Councilman Sterling Wilder said “the city always needs more money,” but he’s “glad the children in our community have the resources they need to have the best education possible.”
With declining enrollment, Helgeson said city council shouldn’t be giving the division more money, which is why he voted against the allocation of $862,000 in late April.
“When you see more and more money and less and less students and more employees, you have to say something’s not right. ... Anybody should be able to recognize that doesn’t make sense,” Helgeson said.
Ward IV Councilman Turner Perrow, who also voted against allocating the $862,000 to LCS, said LCS returning the money is “certainly a good thing.”
“I’m just very pleased that they realized they didn’t need it after all and will put it back into our fund balance I hope,” Perrow said. “It’s gratifying that they listened to those of us on council that have seen multiple budgets. I just wish the rest of council had listened to us at that time.”
At-large Councilman Beau Wright said if the schools “are reporting they don’t need the money, it’s better that they do give it back so we can apply it as council sees fit.”
“It sounds like they have found a way to tighten the belt and do so in a responsible way. If they can give it back, that’s good for the taxpayer,” Wright said.
Helgeson said the Lynchburg City School Board needs to question whether it has been doing its job.
“Are they asking the tough questions? Are they demanding accountability for the school system and budgeting? That’s something they need to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Can we do more to demand accountability?’” he said.
Wright said the board should “engage in rigorous budgeting,” and it’s the “school board’s job to oversee the budget and to make sure the budgets they submit are as accurate as they can make them.”
“I would encourage the school board, based on the press release issued today, to have a conversation and make sure they feel comfortable in the budgets they’re sharing with city council and with the public,” Wright said.
Perrow said the school board needs to “closely monitor their budget.”
“We need to make sure city council appoints fiscally minded people to the school board that can review and analyze the budget and ask tough questions,” Perrow said.
Morrison said she’s “very proud” of the school board for “asking the questions, questioning the answers and our need to be transparent.”
“I think this past year if individuals watch school board meetings, [they see] we ask a lot of questions. Also in our finance committee meetings we ask a lot of questions. ... I think the school board in the last year really did do a lot of analytical thinking about the budget and where we were and how we wanted to move forward,” Morrison said.
Both Perrow and Helgeson said they were pleased with Superintendent Crystal Edwards’ work in analyzing the budget and returning the funding to city council.
“What she did was honest and ethical to come forward with this discovery,” Helgeson said.
The division also has “hired an outside consultant to assist on a part-time basis with finance department operations,” according to the release. Chief Financial Officer Anthony Beckles resigned from the school division June 4.
Morrison said Edwards is working on getting an interim CFO and on a contract.
“She has several leads. We’re not there yet, but hopefully soon,” Morrison said.
Babb said in an email the consultant will be working for the division two days per week, and the division is negotiating a rate.
“We value the public’s trust and confidence in our school division and are committed to the highest level of integrity with regard to using taxpayer dollars wisely. The strategies and suggestions resulting from the forensic audit will be used to guide our current and future budgetary practices,” the release said.
Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434)385-5532.