Commissioners still unsettled on how to proceed with Ennis School District audit

VIRGINIA CITY – At their regular meeting in Virginia City on Tuesday, Madison County Commissioners discussed how best to follow up their request for an audit from the Ennis School District, but after more than an hour of debate the board decided only to schedule another meeting with the Ennis School Board.

The commissioner’s request for the audit comes from the opinion issued by Attorney General Steve Bullock in February stating that the Ennis School District’s use of adult education and transportation funds to build a new school was in fact illegal.

During a recent special meeting between the county commissioners and the Ennis School Board a discussion took place as to the purpose of conducting an audit and whether or not an accounting would be sufficient to provide the information about how the schools money was spent. The suggestion was also made that the school board and county commissioners write a joint letter to the attorney general requesting clarification of remedies that were outlined by the opinion issued in February.

Deputy county attorney Chris McConnell said Tuesday that the county attorney’s office would not assist in writing such a letter.

“It’s our offices position that we won’t participate in drafting or requesting another AG’s opinion,” McConnell said. “We think it adequately addresses the questions we’ve asked, at least to the extent the AG wants to answer.”

From the beginning of the discussion commissioner Jim Hart supported the opinion that whatever the remedy to the issue may be, it should be handled locally.

“This is essentially a local issue and needs to be evaluated and determined with that in mind,” Hart said. “I’m confident that the full audit isn’t necessarily off the table.”

While nobody disputes that the adult education and transportation funds should not have been used to build the new school, the controversy lies in how to move forward. Questions about who should pay for the audit, when it needs to be done and how many years going back should be investigated are yet to be answered. Commissioner Dan Happel suggested that the best way to get to the bottom of the issue is simply to follow the paper trail.

“Both sides have indicated a question of proprietary and procedure, and I think the best way we can handle that is let’s open up the books and do what we discussed a month ago and lets do a full audit on this,” Happel said. “Anything that the school board does to facilitate information to help that process along is going to make it less expensive and a lot less divisive.”

In response to the suggestion that an accounting from the school board would provide an accurate picture of how funds were spent, as opposed to conducting an audit, Happel said there is only one way to find out.

“One side says no, there won’t be any difference. The other side says yes, there might be a significant difference. We’ll never know unless we walk down that path.”

Commissioner Dave Schulz held firm to his position in requesting a full audit.

“I think the intent of the AG’s opinion is fairly clear, and the intent of our letter is quite clear,” Schulz said. “I’m not willing to take a step and then evaluate where we are and then figure out if we want to take another step.”

Happel emphasized the importance of working transparently and keeping the community informed about what is going on.

“We need to do a forensic audit, and we need to ask the school board and school district to do everything in their power to try and accommodate the records that need to be made public,” he said. “That way it shows an intent to try to comply with what the AG’s opinion is, and it shows an intent of good faith.”

Commissioners made no decision on the matter and ultimately decided that another meeting with the Ennis School Board is necessary and tentatively scheduled a meeting for the evening of Tuesday, April 10. Ennis superintendent Doug Walsh was in favor of the meeting but requested that the commissioners accommodate a schedule that allows the both the county attorney and school district’s attorney to be present.

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