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City, Buffalo Public Schools at odds over audit

An audit that criticizes financial controls in the Buffalo Public Schools is fueling dissension between the city comptroller's office and the school district.

"Based on the audit fundings, I can't say with any degree of certainty that Board of Education funds are being spent appropriately," City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said after sending the audit to the Common Council this week.

School district officials argued, though, that most of the auditing period occurred in years when the board conceded there were problems. They added that corrective steps already were being taken at the time of the audit, which spanned a 30-month period through last December.

"They took an audit period when the department was clearly in disarray," said Donald Van Every, chairman of the Board of Education's Finance Committee. "It's disappointing, because I consider it a political document, not a competent audit of the school district."

The report red-flags more than a dozen problems ranging from poor controls and incorrect invoices, to questions about board purchasing policies and violations of state Open Meetings Laws.

The problems cited include:

Lax controls over monitoring purchases, including the use of "blanket" purchase orders that provide few details.

A filing system for purchases and other documents that is "complex, cumbersome and inefficient."

Questions involving millions of dollars in contracts between the school district and two educational support groups. State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi has authorized an audit of the contracts with the Education Innovation Consortium and the Center for Applied Technologies.

If problems persist after the school district implements new auditing procedures this summer, SanFilippo added, he might suggest that the city comptroller's office become involved in day-to-day school operations. The comptroller's current role is largely confined to auditing.

But school officials claim the report doesn't take into account improvements that have been made over the past year to tighten fiscal controls.

Putting a negative spin on the board's fiscal system ignores the progress James A. Williams has made during his nine months as superintendent, said Gary Crosby, the school district's chief financial and operating officer. "This is a positive story about a superintendent who came in and did a sweeping reorganization," said Crosby, who was hired in 2004.

SanFilippo stressed that he has "great respect" for Crosby's abilities, but added it doesn't change the audit's findings. "If they're making changes, I applaud them. But there is still a long way to go," said SanFilippo.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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