School officials in the Wellesley Business Office are working to make the department more transparent and accountable in the wake of the protracted controversies last year that saw the resignation of the superintendent and the ouster of the business manager.
At a school committee meeting on Tuesday night, interim Business Manager Judy Belliveau outlined the steps that she has taken to implement recommendations laid out in a January Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials report, which include giving access to accounting software to school principals instead of restricting it to the business office and moving payment systems for parents online to cut down on the use of cash.
“I think it’s amazing to see how far you’ve come,” said Tere Ramos, School Committee member, at the meeting. “It’s a lot. It’s a lot of areas, and you’ve stepped up to the plate in all of them. We can see how things are just running better.”
Last spring, the district discovered about $169,000 worth of uncollected school lunch debt. The discovery thrust the business office into the glare of a harsh public spotlight and triggered an audit by accounting firm Powers & Sullivan, released in September of last year, which showed a business office operating with little outside oversight. No misappropriation was uncovered, but it found a lack of “adequate monitoring or analytical procedures being applied to the management of the various revenue cycles of the schools.” The MASBO report echoed some issues raised in the first audit, and outlined a series of recommendations to improve operations.
In November of last year, as public outcry over operational protocols mounted, Superintendent Bella Wong resigned, and less than two weeks later, Business Manager Ruth Quinn Berdell was placed on voluntary paid administrative leave. In March of this year, Berdell was fired. She is now suing Wong and former School Committee Chair Suzy Littlefield, alleging that they deliberately destroyed her reputation to save their own.
This year, the district has worked to turn over a new leaf. Superintendent David Lussier, brought in from Texas to head the district in place of Wong, said at Tuesday night’s meeting that Belliveau’s report on changes in the business office represents an ongoing effort at openness.
“It fits within an overall spirit of trying to be very transparent in dialogue about the work, the improvement work,” he said. “To be in compliance with some of these very sensible recommendations that were made to us.”
The MASBO report recommended that the accounting software the district uses, called MUNIS, be decentralized. When the report was conducted, only the Business Office and the Director of Facilities’ Office had access to MUNIS, which meant that department heads were mostly in the dark about how much money was in their program accounts. The lack of access also created a paperwork pileup, because department heads had to submit requisition requests on paper without knowing whether their accounts could cover them.
Belliveau said that now, all principals and their secretaries have access to MUNIS, and are currently being trained on how to use it.
Further, she said, the purchase order process is moving online, which will allow administrators to input their requisitions themselves, with knowledge of the real-time status of their accounts.
This, said Belliveau, will free the business office from delays caused by the backup of rote data-entry duties, while maintaining accounting control.
Another major change: in the next few weeks, said Belliveau, payment systems for parents to pay for extracurricular activities, field trips and fees are moving online. This will cut down on the need for cash and check payments, which, according to the Powers & Sullivan audit, were handled somewhat informally by staff.
The district will phase in online-payment systems, said Belliveau, starting with payments for winter sports. By the end of the year, all payments should be possible online.
The MASBO report faulted the business office for having no documented procedure for handling cash, noting that after sporting events, the Athletic Director often took cash from gate receipts home in his car. Belliveau said that the district has now established night and weekend secure deposits for receipts.
Belliveau is also in the process of creating a procedures manual for the Business Office.
The changes, said Belliveau, are an ongoing process in the office, but she said that she has already heard positive feedback from people in the district.
“I think it’s certainly improving the process for accuracy, it’s also opening up capacity for staff, instead of doing data entry, they can focus on reconciliation and the financial control aspects,” she said. “Those kinds of improvements, I think, are key, and that helps us as we build budgets.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org