Skip to main content

Batavia City Schools taxpayers have right to be concerned, officials say

By Joanne Beck

A state audit discovered nearly 300 pieces of technology equipment missing and unnecessary service fees paid out for those items and those events resulted in a third-party consultant at an additional cost of $8,700.

District taxpayers have a right to be concerned, Batavia City Schools Superintendent Jason Smith says. 

The Batavian asked Smith several follow-up questions related to the audit and his response were issued on Friday afternoon. He reiterated a portion of what his original response was, that “we can and will do better going forward.”

First and foremost, how do you address taxpayers that may have either lost trust, or confirmed their distrust, in district administrators and board members as the guardians of taxpayer money?
He acknowledged that “our taxpayers — including myself as a resident and taxpayer of the BCSD, along with our board members — are right to be concerned about this audit.”

“Our role as fiscal stewards of the Batavia community is vitally important and we need to and will do better in this area moving forward. As the leader of this district, I’m taking this audit seriously and making it a high priority with our administrative team going forward,” Smith said. “I do not take any fiscal responsibility lightly, and understand and value the trust the community gives us to handle tax dollars appropriately.    

“We are developing a detailed corrective action plan — due in 90 days —  that the Board will review and approve, and will be made available to the public as part of a future board agenda. Under my leadership, we fully intend to improve our IT management, implement our corrective action plan, and then carefully monitor the results and new procedures,” he said.  “In addition, our internal and external auditors have been made aware of the comptroller audit and will also work with the district to ensure all procedures are being followed and implemented—as will I and our leadership team.”

Was the district aware of these discrepancies/issues before the comptroller report, or did the audit find these issues?
"The goal of any comptroller audit is to bring attention to areas of concern for school districts and municipalities. The audit found the majority of our IT issues, although prior to my arrival, it’s my understanding the district was generally aware of some of these IT inventory concerns," he said.

Smith included a note for context that “audits of school districts are common and occur on a regular basis, every five years or so for each district.”

According to the State of New York Office of the State Comptroller, “A top priority of the Office of the State Comptroller is to help school district officials manage their districts efficiently and effectively and, by doing so, provide accountability for tax dollars spent to support district operations. The Comptroller oversees the fiscal affairs of districts statewide, as well as district compliance with relevant statutes and observance of good business practices. This fiscal oversight is accomplished, in part, through our audits, which identify opportunities for improving district operations and Board of Education governance. Audits also can identify strategies to reduce district costs and to strengthen controls intended to safeguard district assets.”

As for the missing IT equipment, how did that happen? Were these items on loan to students/staff and weren't returned, or another scenario? What was the procedure supposed to be?
"While there is no excuse for the results found during this audit, we do recognize that the turnover in BCSD administration and our IT department since 2019 contributed to and compounded our IT management issues," he said. "Once we have completed the assessment from the third party company, we will take steps towards also establishing stronger leadership for our IT department. 

"Some items were given to families and not returned and some were given to staff and have not been located in their classrooms.  During the audit itself and as a result of surveying our staff, we found additional missing items reducing the impact of the audit results.

"The procedure should be and will be the development of a detailed inventory list that will match the inventory that has been distributed along with a process for monitoring new/out-of-service inventory and the distribution and return of all IT devices. This will be part of our required corrective action plan that I will personally oversee.

"Over the last 20 years, there have been six different IT directors and approximately six years without an IT Director, mostly due to budget constraints. Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking back, the district may have been penny-wise but pound-foolish in this approach of not having a dedicated IT director for a number of years. We look forward to the incoming recommendations from our third-party company on how best to proceed."

Who is that third party, and what is the fee for this service?
"After reviewing five proposals this past spring, the district selected the Webster-Szanyi law firm as our third-party IT consultants.  The net cost to the district is $8,753.13 after BOCES aid," Smith said. "The firm is providing the district with two educational consultants who specialize in school technology service reviews. Their work has already begun and will be concluded by January."

Doesn't the board have a role in issues like these, such as having to approve the yearly $17,000 fee and being aware of how equipment is being used and its status from the beginning to end of the school year?
"These fees are embedded in our general BOCES bill and not necessarily a separate line item for approval.  We use BOCES to reduce the local share as we receive BOCES aid. The Board should have full confidence and will have full confidence moving forward that leadership is monitoring the use of the equipment, and will be aware of related procedures and will review and approve related policies and our corrective action plan, due in November," Smith said.

How many years has that fee been paid so far? Was it 2021 and 2022 or also 2020?
"The inventory list contained items dating back to 2006. The District pays BOCES fees for each item that we lease, and the $17,000 reported in the audit reflected fees we paid for unused/lost items in our inventory for the 2021-22 school year," he said. "The audit caused us to dig deeper into our current IT inventory, and we have since reduced additional BOCES fees for our current technology equipment resulting in a reduction of $109,000 from our BOCES bill."  

If/when the missing equipment has to be replaced, how will that be funded? How were these items funded ($891,000, I believe) originally? 
"Our IT BOCES expenditures are included in our General Fund Budget but sometimes (relatively minor) items are purchased from State/Federal grants. If we use State/Federal Grants, we do not receive additional BOCES aid. We purchase/replace our IT equipment in cycles so as to not spike the General Fund Budget in any given year," he said. "There is no need to replace those items as the devices are now obsolete."

You have stepped up to take responsibility, but how will your measures put more responsibility on staff, since you can't monitor everything all the time?
"My job is to work with our team and our third-party consultants to develop and implement clear procedures, carefully monitor those procedures, and hold us accountable to those procedures.  This is true for any area of leading a school district, since I cannot monitor everything all the time, my staff will play a vital role in this moving forward," Smith said. "I can and will however monitor these procedures, do spot checks, and have frequent and regular check-in meetings with appropriate staff."

Does the school district have any intention of auditing other areas of the district where similar mishandling or lack of monitoring could also exist?
"We work closely with our audit committee, our internal auditors, and our external auditors on an annual basis. Areas of risk and improvement are identified on an annual and ongoing basis, and we regularly implement new procedures to ensure fiscal accountability," Smith said.

Board President John Marucci had many similar sentiments as Smith, including how the board needs to respond to these findings.

"Taxpayers have a right to be concerned in regards to this audit. The administration and the Board of Education need to and will do better moving forward," Marucci said.  "As board president, I take this audit and its findings very seriously, as do the other BOE members. Jason and his team are putting together a corrective action plan that will be reviewed and approved by the BOE. I want to assure the Batavia taxpayers that this issue is being rectified.

"Regarding additional audits for the rest of the district, we already have auditors in place to review departments on an annual basis, including an audit committee, internal auditors, and contracted external auditors. Each year, they review and identify areas that we could improve on or are of concern," he said. "These audit processes will continue to help ensure fiscal accountability."

What more can the board do to ensure that approvals for spending are necessary and accurately reflect the need?
"As a board, we expect the administration to give us accurate numbers. I trust Jason will make sure that any figures given to the board regarding need-based spending will be accurate moving forward," Marucci said. "It’s the board’s responsibility to do our own due diligence to ensure we’re thoroughly monitoring and reviewing spending requests."

What was the board's understanding when approving or being made aware of the $17,000 annual fee for equipment that, as it turns out, was not even part of district inventory? Moving forward, how can the board protect against such wasteful spending?
"Again, we expect the administration to give the board good and accurate information. This specific IT issue began while we were in the midst of the pandemic, we had a new superintendent, and we had management turnover in our IT department. It's not an excuse, it's reality," Marucci said. "Unfortunately, mistakes happened. Jason was brought up to speed on the issue when he arrived, and he and his team are aggressively putting an action plan in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again. As a board, we need to continue to ask questions to be certain that the information is accurate and gives us a full picture."

What is your overall response to the audit and its findings?
"I was disappointed, but I also understand that any New York State Comptroller audit is ultimately beneficial because it highlights areas of concern that need to be dealt with. Audits ultimately help protect the taxpayers," Marucci said. "With that being said, I believe in Jason, his team, and this board, and I’m confident this issue will be taken care of swiftly."

See previous coverage of the audit.

File photos of Superintendent Jason Smith, top, and Board President John Marucci, by Joanne Beck and BCSD website.

Authentically Local