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2017-11-08 / Front Page

School Board chairman lashes out at supervisors

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

School Board Chairman Javaid SiddiqiSchool Board Chairman Javaid SiddiqiDuring last week’s meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee, School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi admonished two county supervisors for the manner in which they interviewed a certified fraud examiner they hired to investigate a school-related complaint to the county’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse hotline (see SRP fraud complaint gets messy).

Saying “it feels a little like a trial,” Siddiqi apologized to the examiner, John Hanson, and suggested school officials received little notice that supervisors Steve Elswick and Chris Winslow intended to conduct a public review of Hanson’s work.

“I’m sorry you had to play witness to this,” Siddiqi told Hanson. “I find this questioning very troubling and I’m disappointed procedurally. I need to get a better sense of how these two bodies work together. Who sets the agenda? Who chairs the meeting? When we make adjustments to the agenda, does the School Board have a voice in that?

“I’d like to know these answers because I don’t want to be invited to a meeting and not be working with the same information.”

Elswick (Matoaca) and Winslow (Clover Hill) have represented the Board of Supervisors on the Audit and Finance Committee since last year. Siddiqi (Midlothian) and Dianne Smith (Clover Hill) represent the School Board on the committee, which usually convenes every other month unless there are enough agenda topics to warrant a monthly meeting.

While the two boards generally get along well in public, the relationship has been somewhat strained since the school system revealed last October that its supplemental retirement program has a $99 million unfunded liability.

Superintendent James Lane, who inherited the problem when he succeeded Marcus Newsome in July 2016, formed a committee of school employees to recommend changes that would gradually bring the benefit program to fully funded status.

The School Board endorsed the committee’s recommendations. The Board of Supervisors, which had directed County Administrator Joe Casey to come up with a plan to both preserve the solvency of the schools’ SRP and ensure it could never again become so vastly underfunded, approved Casey’s proposal in April. As Chesterfield’s governing body, the Board of Supervisors is empowered under Virginia law to modify the school system’s SRP.

Casey also hired an independent fraud examiner on behalf of the Board of Supervisors in September, about seven months after a citizen lodged a complaint regarding the schools’ SRP to the county’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse hotline.

Newport News-based PBMares contracted with Hanson’s company, Artifice Forensic Financial Services, to investigate the citizen’s claim.

Hanson presented his report last month, concluding that the school system had followed proper procedure when it allowed a former executive to participate in the SRP. His findings were consistent with those of the School Board’s attorney and the county’s internal auditor, both of whom had looked into the citizen’s allegation and dismissed it as unfounded.

Not long after the public release of Hanson’s report, however, county leaders began receiving questions about both his conclusions and investigative methods. At the request of Elswick and Winslow, Hanson agreed to attend the Oct. 31 Audit and Finance Committee meeting and discuss the report.

“Candidly, the School Board had nothing to do with [Hanson’s] scope of work, which is confusing since we sit at this [committee] table together. The [county’s internal] auditor reports to both bodies. And yet, a scope of services was put out without our consent or acknowledgment,” Siddiqi said.

“Given this type of format that we’ve laid out, I’m very confused. I’m actually taken aback and disappointed. I think we can do better,” he added. “I shared last time at this very meeting that when we go out and engage in this type of outsourcing, securing another auditor, without the blessing of the [School Board] … I was troubled then and I’m troubled now.”

Neither Elswick nor Winslow directly responded to Siddiqi’s comments. But later in the meeting, Elswick made it clear the Board of Supervisors doesn’t need the School Board’s permission to investigate a Fraud, Waste and Abuse allegation.

“The bottom line is that when the county gets a complaint, we take it seriously,” he said. “We wanted to make sure another set of eyes looked at it and said there was no fraud, waste or abuse here. That was the goal. That’s why we did what we did.” ¦

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