The Ennis School Board and Madison County Commissioners agreed Wednesday to move forward with an accounting of school district funds used to build the new school.
The board voted to do the accounting and provide the information to the county commissioners.
The board and commissioners also agreed in principle to jointly seek clarification from the Montana Attorney General on his recent opinion. Again the school board voted to make the request, but the commissioners won’t actually vote on the issue until they can properly notice the public about the decision.
Wednesday’s meeting was noticed as an Ennis School Board meeting and was attended by Madison County Commissioners Jim Hart and Dave Schulz. The commissioners didn’t have an agenda for the meeting and therefore couldn’t make any official decisions even though Hart and Schulz represented a quorum for the commissioners.
The special school board meeting was called specifically to deal with a letter sent to the Ennis School Board by the commissioners requesting the board conduct an investigative audit of their funds dating back seven years. The request was based on remedies suggested when Attorney General Steve Bullock issued his opinion in February on the Ennis School District’s use of adult education and transportation funds for the new school.
In his opinion, Bullock said it was illegal to use adult education and transportation funds to build a new school. The opinion also said county commissioners or the school board could “demand an accounting” of the funding sources for the new school.
However, the school board doesn’t deny using adult education and transportation funds to build the new school, said school district attorney Elizabeth Kaleva.
“The attorney general says some of these actions weren’t appropriate,” Kaleva said. “I don’t think anybody up here disputes that.”
Since everyone agrees that the school board used funds for the new school that Bullock now says it shouldn’t have, what is the point in doing an audit, school board member Jim McNally asked Schulz and Hart.
“Before I do anything I would want to know what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
The commissioners and the Madison County Attorney’s office asked the Montana Office of Public Instruction to do an audit of the Ennis School District two years ago to see if funds were being spent appropriately.
In response, OPI issued a letter to the Madison County deputy attorney Chris McConnell appearing to say the district could use the adult education and transportation funds to build the new school as long as the use of the building corresponded with the types of funds used to construct it. However, since Bullock’s opinion was issued, OPI has denied approving the use of adult education and transportation funds to construct the school. They say the letter to McConnell is consistent with their established opinion that using non-levied funds to build a school building is inappropriate.
After McConnell received the response from OPI, he went to the Montana Department of Administration and asked them to conduct an audit of the Ennis School District. The DOA also declined to perform an independent audit. The last step McConnell took on behalf of the Madison County Commissioners was to request the Attorney General’s opinion.
“So where does it end?” McNally asked Hart and Schulz. “If the audit comes back and you don’t like it this thing could go on forever.”
Hart, who supported the letter from the commissioners requesting an audit, seemed to back off his opinion at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I honestly don’t know,” Hart said in response to McNally’s question. “If this will help, then I’m in favor of an audit. If it won’t help, don’t do it.”
However, Schulz was in favor of an audit in an effort to put the issue to rest for the community and taxpayers.
“I believe that in order to get beyond the question at hand … that there needs to be an audit and it needs to be fairly in depth,” Schulz said.
However, an in depth audit could cost a significant amount of money and neither Hart, nor school board member Gary Croy, were anxious to spend more taxpayer money on an audit.
“I’ve been pro audit for quite sometime,” Croy said. “I’m not willing to spend money (on an audit) that ought to go to kids.”
However, an accounting of the funds collected and used by the school district for the construction of the new school could achieve the same end, said Ennis superintendent Doug Walsh.
The accounting could be done in house by district clerk Ginger Martello and save the school district some money, Walsh said.
The district could show commissioners and the public every penny collected and spent on the new school back about five years. Prior to that, the district had a different accounting system and pulling the numbers would be more difficult, he said.
Ultimately, the question will come down to remedies, Kaleva said. An accounting will tell how much money was spent on the new school and which funds the money came from. But what the school district or the county or the taxpayers do with that information is still unknown and the answers aren’t clear in the attorney general’s opinion.
“The finish line is the remedies,” she said.
The attorney general’s opinion does say that taxpayers with standing could file a lawsuit, but those issues have already been litigated and dismissed, Kaleva said.
“I’d like to get a definition of what the attorney general is asking for here,” Schulz said.
Ennis School Board Chairman Marc Glines suggested writing a joint letter to the attorney general seeking clarification on the remedies outlined in the opinion.
Schulz asked McConnell, who was at the meeting to comment on the suggestion.
McConnell asked the attorney general specifically about remedies available to the county or taxpayers when requesting his opinion, so he didn’t think asking him again would make a difference.
“I don’t think writing a letter to him is going to go anywhere,” McConnell said.
It seems pretty clear the attorney general is leaving potential remedies in the situation up to either the courts or local officials, he said.
But both the county commissioners and school board asking jointly for more guidance seems like a good step, Kaleva said.
Hart and Schulz agreed and said they would take up the issue at a publically noticed meeting sometime in early April.
In other news, the school board also approved a list of adult education instructors and classes at the meeting.