Audit gives high marks to school administrators

Audit gives high marks to school administrators

SMITHFIELD - A performance audit of Smithfield Public Schools gives exceptionally high marks to the central administration and generally high marks to educational programs, particularly special education and technology.

The certified public accounting firm of B&E Consulting LLC, Providence, conducted the audit between June and November, commissioned by the Town Council at a cost of $43,650, and its 86-page report has yet to be formally released. Auditors visited every school once during summer and once again during class time.

The Breeze & Observer obtained a copy of the highly anticipated document. The council ordered the audit last year after disagreements over the school system's need for an additional $450,000, mostly to hire teachers. The council, in a novel arrangement that voters supported at the June town meeting, embargoed release of the funds until the performance audit was done.

Perhaps the most startling finding involves the central administration team, which the audit said includes the superintendent, assistant superintendent and business manager, namely Supt. Robert M. O'Brien, Asst. Supt. Bridget Morisseau and Business Manager Lisa Cournoyer.

Citing "an uncommon level of dedication," the consultants were "very impressed with Smithfield's administrators," finding them "very marketable in Rhode Island" and "an asset to any school system." Noting that their workload has increased as a result of added state and federal evaluation programs, the audit report recommends salary and/or benefit increases to keep them. Added incentives also are urged for "building administrators," presumably principals.

On the whole, B&E found Smithfield schools "well run, resulting in educational excellence and financial surpluses," with an educational program that exceeds the Rhode Island Basic Education Program "in a financially responsible manner." Consultants were "very impressed" with the elementary program and "impressed" with the middle school. Also winning high marks was the special education program, led by Director Craig Levis, "a model for other school districts to emulate," the report said. "In short, the special education department and program is one of the best that B&E has reviewed."

At the high school, B&E recommends larger class sizes, as close as possible to the 25-student maximum allowed by contract. The report cites a journalism class with only seven students, and significant numbers of empty seats in math, languages, physical education and English.

A guidance counselor position could be eliminated, the audit says, by cutting two half-time positions, one each at the middle and high schools and increasing workloads of the remaining two, saving about $50,000. The school department in its 10-page written response to the audit, however, defends the smaller class sizes and need for three guidance counselors.

B&E reviewed school expenditures to see if services provided were worth the cost and, it concluded, "found no waste or redundancy relating to salaries and wages in the central office." Office employees are "dedicated," enjoy their jobs and have positions that should be full time, the audit said.

Paul Barrette, newly hired director of technology, won praise from B&E, which said it was impressed with the new IT director and "strongly supports the efforts that he has already made and his vision for programs ... in the future." The administration has plans to include funds for technology improvements in the next budget, with $80,000 the last figure suggested for infrastructure work Barrette has described as "wires and pliers."

In a section on union contracts, the audit tells officials to "make sure that the next teachers' contract provides for at least one year of no pay increases and that in subsequent years the salary increases are in part off-set by insurance co-pay increases." No further elaboration is offered. The audit recommends that all employees, including union members, should pay 20 percent health care premium co-pays.

The audit recommends phasing out accrued sick leave in union contracts due to its cost. "The 2012 Audited Financial Statements showed accrued benefits (sick and vacation) of almost $1 million," the audit said. The school department's response to both issues is that they are subject to contract negotiations.

In other sections of the report, B&E noted the absence of a human resources department for the school system, the lack of a central receiving point for deliveries, and recommends immediate work begin on preparation of a new policy manual. "It is impossible to understate the importance of a proper, legally protecting and complete policy manual," the auditors said.

- Valley Breeze & Observer Correspondent Gerry Goldstein contributed to this report.