11/23/08 — Evergreen speaks to 3 Duplin principals

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Evergreen speaks to 3 Duplin principals

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on November 23, 2008 2:00 AM

KENANSVILLE -- After vigorous resistance from school officials, consultants hired by the Duplin County commissioners to assess the financial state of the county's schools started interviewing the district's principals Wednesday.

County officials contracted with Evergreen Solutions, which is based in Florida, at a cost of $75,000 to audit the public school system's budgeting and spending practice.

The audit, however, began after a jury recently awarded the school system a $4.7 million judgment to cover its current expenses. The county has appealed the decision.

Evergreen's initial team visit was canceled by the Board of Education in October, costing the county $762 in unrefundable airfares.

County Manager Mike Aldridge said the audit was intended to find ways to save money, adding the county commission is considering a similar study of county budgeting and spending.

He said the commissioners began considering the school district audit in 2007, after the newly elected board expressed concerns about comments they had heard from parents and teachers while campaigning.

"They were hearing things about mishandling of money and parents having to buy supplies. They were hearing one thing from the parents and another thing from school officials," Aldridge said.

Then, he added, some of the commissioners heard about Evergreen and decided to hire the company to look for places where improvement could be made in spending practices.

"It was meant to be positive but was perceived as retaliatory," he said, referencing the recent court decision.

School officials continued to resist the audit effort, Aldridge said.

Evergreen staff members were forbidden to talk to any school-based personnel until the Board of Education reconsidered that decision Tuesday night and granted permission for the team members to talk to three principals.

The board members changed their minds during an executive session following their curriculum meeting at James Kenan High School, adding the stipulation that the team talk only to three principals chosen by school district officials.

Originally, the Board of Education stipulated that the team was to talk 30 minutes to all three principals at one time, but school officials later agreed to individual 30-minute meetings.

Carolyn Olivarez, the school system's chief finance officer, said the team interviewed B.F. Grady Elementary School principal Doug Hill at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Warsaw Middle School principal Leo Kea at 1 p.m. and Wallace-Rose Hill High School principal M.D. Guthrie at 3:30 p.m.

Mrs. Olivarez said Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby chose the principals because of the circumstances they encounter at their schools.

B.F. Grady, for example, is a kindergarten through eighth grade school with many Hispanic students and the highest number of mobile classrooms in the county. Mrs. Olivarez said the school system can't add any more mobile classrooms because of environmental and safety concerns.

Warsaw Middle has a large population of at-risk students and is housed in a building that is more than 50 years old.

At Wallace-Rose Hill, Guthrie pioneered Nova Net, a program that allows students to go online to complete missed work and restore credit.

Mrs. Olivarez said Guthrie also pioneered Twilight School. In this program, teachers stay after hours to work with the students who need extra help.

Two team members from Evergreen were in Duplin County Nov. 12-14. Two others, including the company president, Linda Recio, came Monday through Wednesday.

Mrs. Recio spoke to the Duplin County commissioners Monday about how the audit was progressing.

"Seventy-five to 80 percent of the data is in," she told commissioners Monday. "We had a split team. A CPA looked at finance, and a facility person looked at the central office, the schools and child nutrition."

Another team member was scheduled to look at curriculum management. Mrs. Recio said she also had spoken with some Board of Education members. She asked the school board members to reconsider allowing her team to speak to school-based personnel like cafeteria workers, custodians and teachers as well as principals. She said she also asked to speak to school bus drivers.

"By not having access, I cannot get a total picture," she told commissioners.

She added that no other board of education had ever blocked an Evergreen team from talking to school-based personnel.

Evergreen's report is due to be presented to commissioners in January.