Despite fight from new members, school board keeps auditor it has had for 13 years

Two new school board members pushing for the Fayette County school district to change the external auditor it has had for 13 years lost their fight on Monday.

The school board voted 3-2 to extend the contract of Strothman and Company for the 2018-19 fiscal year, despite opposition from board members Tyler Murphy and Will Nash and two citizens who spoke at the regular monthly board meeting.

Neither Murphy or Nash, who voted against the extension, are questioning Strothman’s performance. District officials have praised the firm’s work.

But the two new school board members say best practices dictate that the external auditing firm be rotated every five years. District policy currently says that the external auditing firm should be rebid at a minimum of five years.

The dispute between school board members — with board chair Stephanie Spires and members Ray Daniels and Daryl Love supporting the renewal of the contract — has lasted about a month. The issue has led to some sharp exchanges at the normally polite school board meetings.

Monday’s vote to extend the contract would meet a Kentucky Department of Education deadline to choose an auditor by May 28, a school board agenda document said.

After questions arose, board chair Spires hired outside legal services to conduct a review, she said. An opinion was issued that “we have followed best practices as far as auditing, that we had not violated our policies,” she said, adding that people in the community have offered their support and that even officials from firms that didn’t get the auditing contract have told her that Strothman “has a strong history with school districts.”

Spires said she appreciated the questions from Murphy and Nash and thought the “strong conversations” that followed were “great”, but she was comfortable with moving forward with the vote.

Murphy said he saw nothing in the outside legal opinion that conflicts with the points he had been trying to raise.

Until recently, the school district had an administrative procedure in place that said the district would rotate auditors. After Murphy and Nash questioned why the district had not rotated auditors, the district’s administrative staff in January changed that procedure —which they are allowed to do.

Ron Vissing, who helped lead the unsuccessful recall effort against the tax increase that paid for a package of school safety improvements in Fayette County, entered into the external auditor dispute, too. Vissing spoke against the contract extension at Monday’s meeting.

“Given the amount of public skepticism over the way tax payer monies are managed by this district, I think it would behoove you to build some more public trust and go out and seek” another proposal, Vissing told the board.

Even though he lost the contract vote, Murphy is continuing to work on the issue. He is proposing a policy revision that says at least every five years, the board will ensure the district’s external audit firm rotates off for a minimum of three years. The policy change will be reviewed by the Kentucky School Boards Association and taken up again at a future meeting, board members said.

Fayette retired teacher Claire Batt spoke to the board in favor of rotating the external auditor. She told the board that she was concerned about the financial management in the district.

“As public representatives who handle hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds, its incumbent upon you to be transparent, to provide the best services possible, to ensure that people have trust in public institutions,” Batt said.