Lee School District aims to improve oversight

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Lee County School District needs better oversight in its business office, Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said on Friday.
Weeks will make recommendations to the school board during next week’s meeting for changes in the district’s business procedures and vehicle practices following the arrest of business manager Randy Thweatt by agents from the State Auditor’s Office.
Thweatt, who was placed on paid administrative leave following Tuesday’s arrest, was charged with embezzling an air-conditioning unit and a pickup truck from the school district.
Weeks will recommend an interim business manager on Tuesday, as well as a consultant who will work with that person to establish better oversight and purchasing procedures for the school district. Both people were recommended by Todd Ivey, bureau manager of the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of School Financial Services.
Weeks sought advice from Ivey on Wednesday.
“We had oversight procedures with our Title 1 and Special Education budgets, but whether or not we had oversight on general funds, I don’t know,” Weeks said.
Weeks declined to provide names for the two recommended hires since they are still pending board approval.
“I want two sets of eyes that come from outside of the district,” said Weeks, who became superintendent in January.
“I’m a school principal and a school teacher. I’m not a financial guy. I want people who are experienced in it to say there are things they would recommend doing that would make it better.”
The need for greater oversight has been brought into sharper focus by the fact the school district has been unable to locate any records connected to the purchase of either the air- conditioning unit or the 2006 Ford Ranger truck, including board minutes, purchase orders or bills of sale.
The Daily Journal had filed a public records request for that information.
“We haven’t been able to find any paperwork showing they were purchased by the district,” Weeks said.
During Tuesday’s School Board meeting, Weeks also will recommend that the board alter the district’s practice of allowing some employees to bring district-owned vehicles home with them.
That action isn’t directly related to Thweatt’s arrest, since the truck he was driving was not on the books as being owned by the district. However, the alleged embezzling has caused some community members to question the district’s general vehicle fleet.
The Lee County School District currently owns 44 vehicles, 23 of which go home with employees.
By comparison, the Tupelo Public School District owns 21 vehicles, with three that go home with employees – one by an on-call security person, one by a dropout prevention officer who makes after-hours calls and one by an on-call maintenance worker.
Lee County’s current fleet includes a maintenance truck for each of its campuses. The current practice has been for someone to take those trucks home at night because they were considered more secure at a residence than left at the school.
Weeks will recommend that practice be changed, even if that means finding a better way to secure cars and trucks that will now be left on campus.
It is a change the board has discussed previously, Weeks said.
That will mean the only district-owned vehicles driven home at night will be those assigned to bus mechanics and district-wide maintenance employees, who all remain on-call when at home.
Three high school principals and two assistant principals also have a vehicle they use to attend out-of-town school events, Weeks said. They still will be allowed to take it home with them, he said, since many of those events occur at late hours.
They are only allowed to use them for school business, he said.
No central office employees have district-owned vehicles they take home with them, Weeks said. The superintendent does have a vehicle he uses when he travels on school business, but it remains parked at the central office at night and on weekends, he said.
Meanwhile, the State Auditor’s Office is continuing an investigation that started in 2011 and could include other district employees.
“We are going to continue to work with the state auditor and do everything we can to be cooperative,” Weeks said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com