Debate continues over potential Pinellas auditor
The Pinellas County School Board continued discussing the possibility of hiring its own auditor Tuesday, but questions remain about cost, responsibilities and qualifications.
Several members are clearly leaning towards the board hiring its own “performance auditor,” one with a broad range of oversight duties, financial and otherwise, that would be narrowed by a board-directed “audit plan.” But others wondered if it wouldn’t be more cost-effective to hire outside auditors on an ad hoc basis.
“The person who would have the skills and ability to audit ESE for example for dropout prevention probably wouldn’t be the same person who would audit transportation or maintenance,” board member Peggy O’Shea said at Tuesday’s workshop. “So this might not be a person. It might be, let’s prioritize what areas we want to work in and find an expert in that field to come in, and have another expert come in and do other things.”
A board-appointed auditor with general skills might need to turn to a specialist in some cases, O’Shea continued. And then “costs creep up,” she said.
Board chair Janet Clark asked the board’s audit subcommittee – made up of members Robin Wikle, Carol Cook and Linda Lerner – to research the costs associated with either scenario. Cook said it might be better for the board to come up with an audit plan first, and then determine which scenario would be more appropriate.
Superintendent Julie Janssen raised several concerns, including the possibility that a school board auditor would duplicate some tasks that are already handled internally, or delve into areas where he or she doesn’t have much expertise.
“I would also ask that we don’t have someone that is totally disconnected from curriculum be auditing our curriculum issues and implementations, because that’s exactly what research and accountability does,” she said. “And they do it periodically. And they’re ingrained in it. So we don’t want four or five people checking up on things that maybe aren’t their first role.”
Board members sought to reassure Janssen that an auditor would not be playing gotcha. “You were the one that had said, ‘I am thinking along the same lines’ and sort of gave us the opportunity to move forward with even discussing this,” Cook said. “This isn’t a situation where we don’t believe you’re doing the right thing or that we’re hiring somebody to check up on you.”
Lerner offered a couple of examples where an independent auditor would come in handy. Rightly or wrongly, public perception is that the district’s administration is top heavy, she said. And an auditor could sort myth from reality.
More specifically, she said the district has cut more than 100 maintenance positions in recent years, but nobody knows whether it has been more cost effective to outsource the work than to keep it in house. “That question has been on the table for four years,” Lerner said. “That’s the kind of issue I think a performance auditor could look at.”