After auditors said late last year that the Sag Harbor School District had missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in New York State funding for summer special education programs, district administrators came to a different conclusion: They had overestimated the amount of money they were due to collect.
The routine audit, conducted by the Cullen and Danowski firm and publicized in December, said Sag Harbor failed to file paperwork with the state in 2015, 2016, and 2017 to receive about $350,000.
Documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request by Mary Anne Miller, a Sag Harbor resident, show the district was able to retroactively file and receive about $197,550 for those three years. She posted the results on Facebook and provided them to The Star in July. The documents also show the district accounted for money it did not receive — including for 2013 and 2014 — by listing a “write off” line of a little more than $153,700 in its state and federal aid ledger.
Questioned this week, Katy Graves, the district superintendent, and Carleen Meers, who oversees special education as the director of pupil personnel services, said the auditors helped them realize the business office had simply overestimated the amount of money the district was due.
The school’s business office staff “made the assumption” that all of the children enrolled in the summer school program were special education students, Ms. Graves said, “when the minority of the children, in fact, qualified for the special education funding. That number was exponentially too high, and that happened for a few years in a row.”
For instance, if there were 30 children in the program but only one-third were special education students, the business office nevertheless made projections based on all 30 students, Ms. Graves said.
Thus, she said, the higher dollar amounts auditors suggested Sag Harbor was due were “falsely generated.”
The two administrators explained the business office now communicates directly with Ms. Meers and her staff about summer enrollment of special needs students. “It was good that the audit picked up on it,” Ms. Graves said.
Ms. Miller, a former Sag Harbor School Board member who frequently makes use of the Freedom of Information Law, said she was worried about the results of the audit when it determined there were uncollected state funds due Sag Harbor.
“Since school districts remain dependent on state and federal aid in order to run many of their specialized programs, district leadership and the board of education need to provide the necessary oversight to ensure these funds are applied for and collected each year,” she said in an email to The Star. “When the auditors highlighted uncollected aid . . . a serious lack of oversight was exposed.”
The initial disconnect between the business office and special education department was also concerning, Ms. Miller said.
“[It] surely would have been resolved had the proper amount of oversight been in place from the beginning.” Ms. Meers said the mishap, which happened before she signed on with the district last summer, “did not impact how we go about supporting instruction in Sag Harbor.”
In addition to the money it received for programs from 2015 through 2017, Sag Harbor received $48,436 for 2018. The 2019 program is still ongoing. “The district kind of pays ahead” and then submits paperwork for reimbursement, Ms. Meers said.
In other Sag Harbor School District news, the school board voted in a special meeting last Thursday to temporarily hire a former business administrator as an accountant. Chris Tice, Yorgos Tsibiridis, and Diana Kolhoff were absent at the time of the vote. Jennifer Buscemi had left Sag Harbor in late 2017 for an UpIsland job, though she consulted for the district for a brief time afterward. According to the resolution approved last Thursday, she will return to Sag Harbor at a rate of $115 per hour, up to a maximum of $4,600, through Nov. 1.
Her appointment follows the sudden resignation, on July 10, of Philip Kenter, who began as school business administrator in early 2018. Mr. Kenter’s last day will be Sept. 2. He could not be reached for comment, and Ms. Graves said she could not comment. However, she said Ms. Buscemi will be working on certain “focused projects” for the district, including finances for the Sag Harbor Learning Center, formerly known as Stella Maris.