Auditor seeks $812,824 from school officials

CATEGORY: Legislature

AUTHOR: BOBBY

Auditor seeks $812,824 from school officials

By BOBBY HARRISON

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON — State Auditor Steve Patterson has issued a demand for the current and past superintendents and board members of the nearly bankrupt North Panola School District to repay $812,824.

Patterson issued the demand Monday of the district that the state Department of Education says could be $1.4 million in debt by the end of the school year.

“North Panola is a tragedy of both mismanagement and non-management,” Patterson said in a news release. “Those responsible for this tragedy must be held accountable.”

In reality, Patterson will be trying to collect from the bond company that insures the board members and superintendents. The total of the bonds on the superintendents and board members is about $350,000.

The $812,824 represents money spent by the district in excess of its budget for the period up to June 30, 1995. Patterson said amounts after that date are not included in the demand and that the audit of the school system continues.

Among those board members hit for the demand for repayment Monday was state Sen. Nolan Mettetal, D-Sardis. Mettetal served on the board from January 1993 until December 1995. Soon about being elected to the school board, Mettetal said he saw a problem with the district’s budgeting process.

“I was recruited to run for the post,” said Mettetal, who was elected to the state Senate in November. “It was a very, very frustrating experience. I chose to stay on because I was elected to it.”

The demand from the auditor’s office is the latest in a series of events involving the North Panola School District. The state Department of Education announced in December that the district was nearly bankrupt. Since that time, members of the House and Senate education committees have been working to solve the problem.

Earlier in the session that began Jan. 2, the Legislature passed a bill allowing the state Board of Education to take over the district and appoint a conservator to run the schools. Under the bill, the state board had the option to fire the school board and administrators who caused the budget shortfall. The state also could loan the district up to $2 million to cover budget shortfalls.

But Gov. Kirk Fordice vetoed the bill last week, saying he was opposed to taking the money from the state’s Working Cash-Stabilization Fund. That $200 million-plus fund was set up to cover state budget shortfalls and for natural disasters.

Thus far the Legislature has not tried to override the governor’s veto. One reason they might not have tried to override is that under the bill the governor still has the final say. The bill requires the governor to declare a state of emergency before the state Board of Education can take over the district.

Even if the Legislature overrode his veto and the bill became law, there is no guarantee that Fordice would declare the state of emergency.

In that scenario, North Panola still would be facing the same situation. State officials say before the end of the year the district will be broke and not be able to pay teachers. Then, for all practical purposes, the schools would close, leaving 2,200 students without an educational opportunity.

The Senate and House are working on another bill that would take the funds from a different source. The Senate passed a resolution to suspend the rules so that the new bill could be considered even though it is past the legislative deadline for such issues.

Rep. Tommy Horne, I-Meridian, chairman of the Rules Committee, said he did not know when the House would consider a motion to suspend the rules. Both Houses must pass rules suspensions before a new bill can be introduced.

The rules suspension measure might be tougher to pass in the House. The bill setting up the emergency conservatorship passed 71-46 on final passage in the House. It takes a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules, which would be 81 of the current 121 members in the House of Representatives.

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