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Published: Wednesday, 1/11/2006

Mason hopes to save bus jobs

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ERIE - Residents in the Mason Consolidated School District are being asked to reach into their pockets this weekend to save the jobs of four transportation aides who face being laid off this month after the district discovered nearly $700,000 in errors in its budget late last year.

A group of volunteers will be hosting a dessert fest Saturday night in the high school in hopes of raising at least $8,900 in donations to spare the jobs of four transportation aides scheduled to get pink slips later this month.

But while the pies and cheesecakes on offer this weekend may satiate a sweet tooth, they won't feed the hunger for answers expressed last week by about 200 people who crowded into the high school cafeteria to find out what went wrong.

A certified public accountant with long experience in public school accounting in Michigan will begin what is expected to be a two-day audit Monday, looking at all of Mason's transactions over the last three years. Steve Smacka of Saginaw is scheduled to give the district his assessment of what happened at the board's next meeting on Jan. 23.

Superintendent Marlene Mills and board president Daphne Williams both said that the district's initial investigation and audit revealed no criminal wrongdoing and no evidence that any money is actually missing. However, the final determination is likely to be left to Mr. Smacka.

"It looks to us like it was the state aid line [in the general fund budget]," Mrs. Mills said. "That line was $350,000 over, and the special education line [item] was $350,000. It looks like it wasn't subtracted, so those children would have, in essence, been counted twice."

Mrs. Mills said there was a similar duplicate entry error that accounted for approximately $220,000 in technology millage money twice, including an extra entry in the district's general fund budget, that also skewed the district's revenue projections and made them too high.

There were also some expenditures that weren't accounted for at all, the superintendent said.

Efforts to contact former Mason Business Manager Deanna Rowe, who retired at the end of June and put together the budget, were repeatedly unsuccessful.

The board's approval last week of approximately $200,000 in cuts from its budget will have the effect of leaving the district with about $450,000 in its fund equity at the end of the year, instead of the $937,000 that is now in the account.

Had the cuts not been implemented, Mrs. Mills said, the district would likely begin the 2006-07 school year with just about $250,000 in its "rainy day" fund - less than the estimated increase for health care district officials have budgeted for the coming year.

The board implemented sev-eral hundred thousand dollars in cuts last summer, including cutbacks in transportation, sharing some business office operations with Whiteford Agricultural Schools, eliminating some electives in the high school, and reducing administrative staff.

Mrs. Mills said that, had the budget figures been accurate at the beginning of the year, district officials probably would not have made some of the choices that they did.

"We wouldn't have hired some people," Mrs. Mills said. "We had looked at reducing a third or fourth grade teacher, or both.

"But based on the budget figures we had, we opted to keep those class size low. In the meantime, a third-grade teacher left and we rehired for that position. We would never have refilled that position."

Mrs. Williams said she and other board members want to gather all the information that they can and then present an accurate picture to the public.

"Part of what we're looking for as a board is how we got to this point, where does the responsibility lie, and what do we need to do in the future to make sure this doesn't happen again," Mrs. Williams said.



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