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Elizabethton School Board holds emotional meeting over comptroller findings

John Thompson • Sep 5, 2018 at 11:58 PM

ELIZABETHTON — With board members finally able to talk about a recently completed investigation into how cash is being handled in the school system, Wednesday’s Elizabethton school board meeting was one of the most emotional in several years.

Board members and Director of Schools Corey Gardenhour finally discussed their thoughts and feelings about the Tennessee Comptroller’s office probe, which looked into whether various school support groups that handled cash were in compliance with board policy.

Several members of the audience also spoke in emotional terms, including Eddie Pless, one of the two Elizabethon High School Athletic Department co-directors who were fired before the investigation. Other speakers from the audience included former superintendent Ed Alexander and two volunteers from school support organizations.

The school board members have not talked publicly about the problems or the investigation because they had been told to make no comments while the comptroller was conducting the investigation. All the members said not being able to talk about it had been extremely frustrating.

Board member Susan Peters said Elizabethton is a small city, and with the board unable to talk, rumors grew to fill the public’s strong desire to know what had happened.

Pless said it was much more difficult for him and his family.

He said every time he ran into an old acquaintance he had not seen since the firing, he had to answer the same questions.

Board Member Grover May said there was concern that if the board ignored the comptroller’s request not to discuss the matter while the investigation was going on,  it could make matters worse if the school system might face penalties.

With the investigation over, Gardenhour discussed events that led up to the calling of the investigation and what was investigated.

Gardenhour said the whole thing started in the principal’s office rather than in the athletic department, and the tip came from outside the school system. He said the U.S. Postal Service warned the school system that “the postal meter machine was possibly being used for personal use.”

After checking the problem with the postage meter, Gardenhour said the system supervisors wondered “what other areas could there be a problem.”

The search led to the school service organizations, where cash was handled. He said when it appeared that board policies were not being followed, the comptroller’s office was notified.

He said the Elizabethton Police Department and the Carter County Sheriff’s Department were also brought in. He said the investigation took so long because there had to be coordination with law enforcement, but mostly because of the involvement of the federal government in the form of the U.S. Postal Service.

Gardenhour said some of the policy violations included generating a petty cash fund by selling admissions to adults, but giving the customers student tickets instead of adult tickets. He said extra funds were also accounted for by tearing and counting tickets as sold instead of doing a reconciliation.

When Alexander asked if any money was missing, Gardenhour said that could not be known because receipts had not always been kept.

Although the practices were in violation of board policy, Alexander said at the beginning of the meeting that they were actions that “every school system in the state uses.” He said the dismissals of two 30-plus-year veterans of the school system was not warranted.

The focus was turned to the school support groups by two longtime members.

Trudy Colbaugh objected to a statement that support organizations had been trained in the board’s policies on handling money. She said she had never received training in the years that she had worked as a volunteer.

Catherine Cusack also said she had never had training, and was unaware of a manual that was supposed to provide guidance in proper procedures.

Beth Wilson, director of business and fiscal management, said the manuals had been issued following a change in state law in 2008. It appeared that some of the support organizations had not passed the manuals and policies on from year-to-year as one group of officers succeeded another.

Because of that, the school system had a training session with school support organizations last week.

Audience member Terry Peters asked Gardenhour who was ultimately responsible for the policy violations.

Gardenhour responded that as director of schools, “I am responsible.” Peters then said Gardenhour should resign.

Things became more reflective as the board discussed the problem.

May said that despite the difficulties of the past few months, the school system is making great achievements and going in the right direction. Even so, he said he believed every member of the board was sorry for the long and difficult chapter in the school system’s recent history.

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