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Posts published in “Day: February 1, 2008

North Forest undecided on Superintendent

By Gilbert Hoffman
Events surrounding the selection of the new superintendent for the North Forest school district, and resolution of their academic and financial problems, continue to be in an unresolved state as of this week.
After announcing on January 23, at a special called board meeting, that they would rehire Dr. James Simpson, whom they had previously fired, it became unclear whether this announcement would be final. This is because at a subsequent board meeting, president Tobie Ross Jr. said informally that he would consider rescinding his vote, because of new considerations about financial management during Simpson’s previous tenure. However, a formal board vote was not taken at that meeting on Feb. 4, and the exact legal status of the board’s position is not clear. It is expected that another discussion and vote will take place this coming week, and a board meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 12th.
Simpson has indicated he is anxious to return to work, and has suggested to the board that they retain him as a consultant until they can formally vote on his hiring. Ostensibly the board meeting last week was for this purpose, but it turned in another direction.
The vote on Jan. 23 was only a 4-3 margin, so it would only take one board member changing his or her position to upset the final vote.
In the meantime, parents, citizens, and public groups are becoming more concerned that the board is not on track to solve the problems of the district.
Northeast Education First, a citizens group headed by Robin German Curtis and Albert Coleman, former board members, has held a press conference and prayer and candle light vigil prior to the board meeting on Feb. 4, asking the Texas Education Agency to send a new management team and to take control of the District immediately.

Later in the week, the TEA did in fact announce that they were sending additional assistance to the district, in the form of two more staff members who will be assigned full time to help sort out the district’s financial records and condition, according to TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
These monitors will be in addition to a financial conservator, Henry Boening, who has been working with the district since last March 2007, and an academic conservator, Barbara Wilson, since November 2007.
TEA spokesperson Ratcliffe noted that attendance at one of the high schools is only 81%, which affects the district both financially and academically, and suggested that solving this problem would help a lot.
Board president Ross indicated North Forest could solve the problems without further TEA help.

State auditor: North Forest ISD on verge of bankruptcy

The North Forest ISD, which learned last month that it would be receiving $7.3 million less than it thought in state funds, got another dose of bad news when a state auditor said that it did not have enough money to pay its bills for the remainder of the school year.
Speaking to the board of trustees Walter Davis said that unless “drastic measures” were taken the district would not have enough funds to pay its bills over the next 90 day. Davis is an auditor from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) who was sent to the district to monitor their finances.
The district, however, disagrees. Nakisha Myles, spokesperson for the district said that Davis was exaggerating the situation and that they have the funds to get through the year. “We are putting together our plan which he hope to provide to the public soon,” she said.
Carl Williams, assistant superintendent of finance, said that they have been diverting funds form the construction budget to payroll and other operating costs. This practice raised some questions as to whether this was allowed. While the funds were approved by voters for construction projects, there is no state law which prevents them from being spent in other areas. The district says that when tax revenues come in this month they will be able to repay the construction fund.

According to Interim Superintendent William Jones the TEA is withholding $7.3 million in state funds, saying that it overpaid the district for the 2006-2007. School districts receive funds from the state based on student enrollment. The state says that the school district over-reported its enrollment. Jones admitted that no one at the district had updated the enrollment figures that went to the state. Sources indicate that over the past five years the district had seen an over 3,000-student drop in enrollment.
In most districts when an emergency comes up such as a natural disaster or expected loss of state funds they can turn to their fund balance, which is a type of “rainy day fund.” This is not an option for North Forest. Jones said that overspending and inaccurate budgeting has left the district with a $5.1 million deficit in its fund balance.
In order to make up the shortfall, Jones has asked that each department would have to come up with at least an 11% cut in their budget. How this will affect the approximately 1,400 district employees is yet to be determined. However, it is believed that cutting back services and non-employee related expenses would not be enough to make up the $7.3 million.
Myles said that the board has not set a date to review the recommended budget cuts but that she it expected it to happen soon.
Last month students returned to Forest Brook High School after attending classes at Smiley the first semester while repairs were made at their campus. One suggestion offered by Williams is that consolidating the students into one high school would cut costs. He also favored keeping the students of Hilliard and Tidwell Elementaries combined. The Tidwell campus was closed in October when mold was discovered in the school.
Financial troubles are nothing new to North Forest.
Last year the TEA began an investigation into FEMA funds sent to the district for school repairs. In 2001 $10 million was sent to the district to pay damages caused by Tropical Storm Allison. Later another $13 million was sent to the district. When the district was asked to document how the funds were spent it could not produce adequate records.
During this time the district also used school bonds that were supposed to go for new construction to make the repairs based on the promise that 75% of the money would be reimbursed if documented. The documentation did not come.
In March 2007 the TEA appointed a conservator to the district to oversee its finances. The same month the school board fired Superintendent Dr. James Simpson. The missing documentation occurred before Simpson came to the district.
Simpson’s firing led to a wrongful termination lawsuit being filed against the district. Last month the board voted to rehire Simpson as superintendent.
The district also had unexpected building expenses with the mold remediation at Tidwell and then $1 million in repairs and renovation at Forest Brook High School following last summer’s vandalism. Tidwell Elementary school has also been a target of copper thieves.