According to the state Department of Education, program money used in school districts' Early Childhood Education programs should provide services in 4-year-old kindergarten classrooms that focus on the developmental and learning support the children must have to be ready for school. Appropriate classroom space is to be given to equipment, materials and supplies, the state department says, for the program - which is relatively new and was formed after the state's Read to Succeed Act was passed in 2014.
Many items purchased in recent years by Sumter School District's Early Childhood Education program were deemed "disallowed" and "questionable," according to a state department audit report that was released this past week.
Furthermore, program training fees paid by the district to two district employees who conducted trainings were judged as "unreasonable" and "excessive," and the state department recommended the district reimburse it for a total of about $177,000 in misused state funding.
All that information is detailed in a finalized 11-page report from the state department's Office of Auditing Services that was released this past week to The Sumter Item after the district submitted a corrective action plan for its Child Early Reading Development and Education Program. In July, when the auditing office completed the report, it was provided to the State Law Enforcement Division as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into financial improprieties in the district's program. The investigation stems from anonymous complaints about the program and its director received by the state department and the district earlier this year.
The district has already reimbursed the state department for the total amount to appropriately move forward, it said, even while the SLED criminal investigation is still ongoing. According to the district, the program director retired in July and is no longer an employee. The other program employee in question is on administrative leave, according to the district.
The list of disallowed and questionable items purchased with program money under the director's watch is extensive and includes:
- five adult tricycles
- five hammocks
- 13 slow cookers
- 30 vacuum cleaners
- six coffeepots
- various coolers,
- smoothie makers
- toasters and other small kitchen appliances
- five carport canopies
- four iPads
- two Gamecock chairs
- two horseshoe game sets
- an anywhere bed
- a waterpark
- patio furniture
The audit report details how the district's program purchasing came into question and how that part of the investigation was handled.
The report details that on April 24, the district informed the Office of Auditing Services of a complaint it received internally that the early childhood program director purchased several items with program funds that were used for personal purposes and not for program activities.
On April 28, the office's auditors notified the district it would conduct an onsite visit on May 1 to view items that appeared to be unallowable.
The auditing office said in its report that during its May 1-2 visit, the office reviewed program invoices and receipts, interviewed program employees and performed an observation test for a sample of items purchased with program funds to determine if the items existed and were necessary and allowable. That full report is located online on The Sumter Item's website, accompanying this story.
The audit report details extensively what occurred during the May 1-2 visit and a subsequent visit on June 7. Those audit findings include receiving "inconsistent" explanations from the program director about questioned supply expenses.
The office noted the director did show auditors some items at the district's schools, but she said she didn't know where other items were located.
The auditors detail in the report their belief, based on interview testimonies, that some items were only placed in pre-kindergarten classrooms after the April 28 notification of the May 1 onsite visit.
Furthermore, the report details some items the program director couldn't account for on the May 1 visit were later shown to auditors at the district's Brunhill warehouse during the June 7 visit. But shipping labels had been torn off some boxes of materials, the auditors say in their report. When auditors reviewed packing slips in boxes that day they discovered some purchases were made after the May 1 visit. The report states then it was determined the costs of these items would be disallowed.
Some items were not accounted for in either visit, the report states, including iPads, Gamecock chairs, a waterpark, and decorative items for plants.
After viewing large quantities of certain items in storage and not in use in classrooms, the office deemed that "spending excessive, unnecessary and unreasonable."
The auditors also received witness statements from a warehouse worker and a locksmith at the warehouse that the program director made deliveries to the facility on the morning of the May 1 visit and on the morning of the June 7 visit.
How some purchases were justified
The audit report details that some items were in use at district schools. One early childhood education teacher interviewed at a school as part of the investigation said cooking items were stored in an early childhood program activity storage room at the school and checked out to make smoothies and other food for pre-kindergarten students.
How about the five adult tricycles? According to the audit report, the early childhood program director said during the May visit from the state department that these were purchased with the intent to transport special needs pre-kindergarten students. When the tricycles arrived, she explained she thought that they would not serve the intended purposes, and they were supposed to be returned to the vendor, and she said that a now-retired warehouse worker stored the tricycles somewhere, but she did not know where.
Later, in the June 7 visit, three adult tricycles were viewed in the warehouse. Shipping labels had been torn off the boxes. Based on their conclusions from other items viewed that day, auditors determined the tricycles in storage were also new purchases after the May visit.
Improper purchasing practices
In the audit report, the former program director is also accused of improper purchasing practices. The auditors reported she split purchases to avoid the district's procurement process, requiring higher approval and three price quotes for purchases exceeding $2,500.
For example, the report notes two separate invoices dated Nov. 18, 2016, from Staples for Apple iPads and other items. One invoice totaled $2,474.23 and the other totaled $2,306.88. And less than a month later, the director made similar-type purchases from Staples on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 for Amazon Echo headphones, the report states.
Concerning procurement, the office's report states the school district requires approval from the district's Information Technology Department for purchases of technology items, but there was no documentation of approval for either the iPads or the headphones. The report goes on to exonerate then-Superintendent Frank Baker and other district administrators from any blame in the purchase of these items.
When questioned by the office's auditors during their probe, the program director said when the iPads were purchased in November 2016 the district's information technology director was out of the country, and she received emailed approval from Baker to purchase the iPads. She stated she would forward the emailed approval to the office's auditors but never did. Baker told the office's auditors during their investigation that he never approved the purchase of the iPads.
District 'moving forward'
Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm said Thursday in a statement that she was made aware of the state department's findings after being named to her post on Aug. 1. She and district Chief Financial Officer Chris Griner have met with the state department's auditors, and she has put corrective actions in place for the program.
"In Sumter School District, we are moving forward with fiscal responsibility and increased transparency in all that we do," Hamm said.
A district spokesperson also said Thursday the district intends to cooperate fully with SLED -- as it did with state department auditors -- as the agency's investigation continues. The spokesperson added the district is optimistic that the investigation will provide definitive information regarding the state Department of Education's findings and allow the district to finish addressing the matter.
With the various program allegations from earlier this year, the Sumter County Sheriff's Office was initially notified. According to an office spokesperson, Sheriff Anthony Dennis deferred the case over to SLED because of the potential conflict-of-interest issues for his office. The sheriff's office has employees who work in the school district as school resource officers, the spokesperson said.