School board special sessions leaves more questions than answers

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A special session of the Colleton County School Board was held on Monday, November 21, to discuss the items on the agenda with a special focus on the recent expenditures that were used for the murals a various Colleton County Schools. A formal request for an additional vehicle for CCSD was also admitted into the record.

In Superintendent Dr. Vallerie Cave’s opening presentation, the recent “Mural, Mural on the Wall” artists’ residence project disclosed as a capital project request made by several school principals and that the murals were a response to the student council to help instill school pride.

Cave said that principals from Bells, Cottageville and Hendersonville elementary schools, Colleton County High School, and Colleton County Middle School all requested paintings or murals that were on a list that had been approved previously by the board as one of the projects slated for funding through the Capital Projects Fund.

It was also established through the meeting that the total amount available from the Capital Project fund was 3.7 million dollars altogether for use towards approved capital fund projects

To date, a total of 15 mural painting projects at $182,000 have been completed.

Cave was questioned by new board members Craig Stivender and Daryl Erwin regarding providing an itemized listing of these projects. Cave stated that she does have that information.

Cave provided a breakdown of the costs of the current mural projects.

According to Cave, the Bells Elementary cafeteria wall was $35,000, the Hendersonville Elementary wall was $35,000, five columns in the cafeteria were $27,500 in full, an oversized cougar was $15,700, removing the oversized exit was $1,175 plus material cost, four banners were $16,000, an oversized cougar in the gym with a full body at Colleton High was $39,275, to replace mats in the gym was $6,578 and $1,232 for material costs for an approximate total $177,460.

Cave indicated that there are two additional mural projects that were requested by the schools that were put on pause that need to be completed.

Erwin also inquired about the cost of the two projects on hold, Cave said she was unsure because they did not contact the artist yet for the rest of the costs due to the questioning of the mural projects. She also explained that the artists must come into the schools and work with them before an estimate can be given. The two projects are slated for Northside and Cottageville elementary schools.

Through the presentation, Cave said that a cyberattack took place in October 2021 paralyzed the district. As a result, the district had to locate a funding source to cover costs accrued in its recovery. The board at the time had made the decision to pull money from capital funds for the initial costs. The amount of the cyberattack recovery was $700k and still increasing said Cave.

Cave explained that since monies from the capital project fund were used to cover the cost of the cyberattacks, many of the projects on the capital improvement list previously requested and approved were postponed.

Cave also said the district currently does not have cyber insurance and cannot get cyber insurance until everything is cleared up.

School district personnel did contact the insurance company six months ago to see if some of the costs that had been incurred through the cyberattack could be recovered. The insurance company informed the school district that it did not have cyber insurance but would see if it could provide some funds for any projects that were initially slated for capital project funding.

District office staffer Ramona Barrett said that about six months later the insurance company sent an email. She said, “To my surprise, they sent an email because I wasn’t expecting anything. They said they were going to help us out and gave us some funding for that.” She said the insurance company did not have to pay out because the district does not have cyber insurance, but the insurance company wanted to help the schools out. The company had read in the paper about the cyberattack and wanted to help. She explained that invoices from the technology department had been sent previously for the insurance company to consider.

Barrett said that $545,000 was given by the insurance company. She also indicated that the money was freely given when board members wanted clarification of the intent of the funds.

Later in the meeting, discussion established that this sum was placed into another fund as “insurance reserve money” that falls under a “special revenue” fund that is used under the discretion of the superintendent

Cave explained the original plan was to have the mural painting projects paid for out of priority funding. She thought they would be approved. She admitted that she did say they were approved in the last board meeting. “Little did I know that they were not approved,” she said. Cave stated that she checked and found the funds were not approved for this project.

Cave said she had to find another means. “Luckily, we did have that funding and they were able to be paid out of that special funding. So that’s where all those projects were paid out of,” she said.

“No federal funds were used, no general funds were used, and no priority funds were used to pay for those special projects which are governed by the superintendent. It’s paid for,” she said.

For clarification, Erwin asked if the money came from the cyber incident that took place. Cave shared that the money to pay for the mural projects did not come from the cyber incident but rather came from “special revenue”. She also explained that it came from “insurance reserve money”.

Barrett explained that the insurance company was able to support our plan with some funds under special funding, which Cave used to cover the costs of the mural artisan residence projects in full. Erwin asked where the rest of the money, minus the $182,000 went. Barrett said that it was in an “insurance reserve account.”

School board member Sharon Witkin asked how the previous projects from the past were funded. Cave shared that they were paid for through the “General Fund” and one was paid for through “PTO funds” (Parent Teacher Organization). Some of the previous projects were approximately $19,900 and some were covered through the “General Funds”.

Witkins requested a comparison of previous projects, how they were paid for and how much they cost compared to the current mural projects. Cave said that she can provide information on the cost of past projects and current projects.

Watkins questioned Cave why the board was not informed of the insurance company giving the school district the $545,000 as a gift and why the board was not made aware of the idea of an artist residency program with such large amounts of money involved. Cave said that she did not know why she did not make them aware. She also shared that she just did not think it was necessary because she considered it a day-to-day operation.

Witkins voiced that as a board, it is their job to have oversight over the operations of the school district overall and often get questions from the community. She explained that it is their job to support the district and its efforts.

Witkins communicated that it felt like the board was intentionally left out of the decisions made about the projects, the costs of the projects, and the sources of funding. Additionally, she stated that she does not feel comfortable with using this provider and having this project identified as artist-in-residence.

Witkins said that she cannot be convinced that the murals will teach the children and help them with their outcomes, and she does not believe that the return on this investment is one that can be seen. She said, “I am left with more questions than answers at this point.”

Cave said, “That is a matter of opinion.” She shared how the mural projects provided a life experience for the children, as the children were able to have conversations with the artists that were motivational, wonderful, and lifelong experiences. She also mentioned how the children could tell others about their experiences, which could help them make decisions in the future and some may be inspired to become artists.

Stivender wanted to know how many students participated in the mural projects and requested a list of the number of students to be provided. He expressed his concern that with the high number of students in the district, there is a probability that only a small percentage participated in the project.

Stivender said many are very concerned about the amount of money spent on the mural projects. He said information at the previous meeting was misleading that stated that the projects were between $15,000-$25,000 per project. He reiterated that only two of the completed projects fell in that range and that the others were well over the amounts by an additional $10-15,000. He said that the money could have been used better.

Cave insisted that she did not mislead anyone; that at the time of the last meeting there was one project at the high school and that everything was not completed. Stivender stated that Cave was quoted as saying, “They vary from $15,000-$25,000, it depends.” Cave admitted that she did state that at the last meeting.

Erwin indicated that a sum of $182,000 plus two additional projects in waiting is a considerable amount of money when the district had to use ESSA funds to help balance the budget this year. He said that money is really not available to spend.

Erwin questioned if there was money in capital project funding for murals and paintings. Cave confirmed that there was. Cave also reiterated that a portion of it was used for the cyberattacks at approximately $700k and that the district had to pay. She repeated that the board had approved the use of the money from the capital projects fund to cover the cyberattack costs.

Erwin questioned why the “free money” from the insurance company was not applied to spending from capital project funds.

Cave said that the district did use some of the money to pay for the murals and that they had other things they had to pay for too. She said that they could not pay out of capital projects funds for some because they were not approved.

Witkins wanted clarification on the 8% of capital funding projects that were approved on the list that the board has. Cave said that the first request on the list was $3,730,727. Then on the approval list was a grand total of $2,040,000, of which they could only fund $1.6 million. On that list, there were murals and paintings previously approved by the board.

Cave repeated how some of the capital project money was applied toward the costs of the cyberattack, which was approved by the board at that time. Some of the capital projects were put on hold with the knowledge that some additional money would be available in September.

Witkins emphasized that there is a problem with not informing the board. She stated as one in seven that approve the budget for the district, there is an expectation to have the budget adhered to.

She also indicated that when money is given, she would like to be informed so those funds can be taken into consideration for district-wide goals they are working towards. Additionally, Witkins requested some documentation from the insurance company regarding the money.

Cave said she had adhered to everything on the approved budget which is governed by the board. Witkins stated she wants to see documentation of everything, including the money that was given that was indicated previously to be used under the discretion of the superintendent.

Witkins requested a copy of the list of exemptions.

New school board member Lynn Stroble also requested a list of what items need bids and what items are exempted, so that everyone involved can be aware and asked for documentation if the gifted money was returned to capital funds.

There was still some level of confusion about the money trail when Erwin attempted to gain further clarification and Witkins reiterated that capitol project funds are supposed to go before the board and be voted on through the budgeting process and if there are any changes to be made.

Under new business, Cave sought approval for a 2021 Ford Escape for $25,000 using “Special Revenue” funding. The car is located at Walterboro Motor Sales Ford.

Cave stated that the district is experiencing an increase in mileage for district travel. So far, $187,086.45 has been spent and the district is currently $62,000 over last year at this time according to Cave. She also noted that she was not claiming any mileage expenses herself and that it is the mileage from other district staff.

Cave stated that she wanted it on record that the district will not be able to sustain travel. When asked about the number of vehicles the district has, she informed the board that there are 25 vehicles in the district, two of which are used for professional development. One of those is working and the other is not working.

In order to save on mileage, she is requesting the purchase of a vehicle. She stated that the district has some vehicles but needs one to replace one that is not working. The board indicated that it wanted to postpone the decision until the next meeting.

Cave concluded that the district is approximately $62,000 over budget for travel compared to last year at this time. Last year the district spent $323,257.11 total for travel for the whole year. At the current rate of $0.62 they are paying more per mile and are traveling more. The cost of traveling is higher now versus during Covid when there was less traveling. Additionally, conferences were conducted via zoom last year versus conferences meeting in person again currently.

The board requested more information regarding the mileage and the personnel using the car. They also called for an itemized list with more details for the next school meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

To view the recorded video of the meeting visit YouTube at CCSD Special Board Meeting - 21 November 2022.

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