Schools hire first internal auditor

Longtime U.S. government worker to monitor capital, operating budgets

March 03, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

A Baltimore school employee plots to steal $4.2 million from the school system's facilities department and is sentenced to five years in prison. School systems around the state are accused of mismanaging Medicaid funding and could end up paying $19.9 million back to the federal government.

With hefty budgets and a thicket of complex programs to administer, school systems can be tempting targets for theft and mismanagement - and Howard County now has a watchdog to guard against that.

John J. Connors, a longtime resident of Columbia with more than three decades of auditing experience, has just taken over as the school system's first internal auditor, in charge of monitoring more than a half-billion dollars in capital and operating funds in a system with more than 7,000 employees.

Connors, 56, will review the financial workings of the system, counsel the school board about the administration of funds and evaluate the internal processes of the board.

"I'm looking forward to working here," Connors said, who most recently was chief auditor for the Maryland Aviation Administration at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "It's closer to home and a better commute. It's a good opportunity."

The newly created position fills a pressing need, said Raymond Brown, the school system's chief operating officer.

"It is critical we have management that conducts reviews so that we can determine where we are most vulnerable," Brown said. "It can't help but make us a better organization from a fiscal integrity standpoint."

The recent issues around the state illustrate that point.

In October, the former facilities manager for Baltimore City schools was sentenced to five years in prison and three years of supervised probation in a scheme to steal $4.2 million from the city school system over a 12-year period.

In July, federal audits revealed that the Baltimore City School System could owe at least $12.2 million for mismanagement of Medicaid dollars intended for special-education students.

In addition, auditors found alleged problems in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Prince George's and Wicomico counties totaling $7.7 million.

Howard County has not been immune to trouble.

In September, an employee at Folly Quarter Middle School was arrested on charges of embezzling $10,000 in checks from the school activities fund.

Other problems

There also have been other problems, according to school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

"There have been minor things - not improprieties - staff not knowing the correct way of doing things or to keep financial records," said Caplan.

The creation of Connors' position is in large part to the work of Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman, who added money to the fiscal 2006 budget to hire an internal auditor.

Previously, the system relied on external auditors to review system spending.

"It's about resources and tax dollars being spent as efficient as possible," said Kaufman, who plans to serve on the board's audit committee.

Connors will make $75,000 a year and will work full time at the Board of Education in Ellicott City.

Federal, state and local auditors will continue to provide annual reviews, Brown said.

Originally from Mechanicsville, N.Y., Connors has 31 years of auditing experience with the federal government.

He retired in 2001 as deputy inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.

He worked the next four years as chief auditor for the Maryland Aviation Administration, overseeing an operating budget of about $150 million.

Conners has lived in Columbia since moving from New York City in 1979 and has four children. Two attend county schools.

As he takes his new position, his experience and credentials win him confidence from the Howard school system's top brass.

"I think the board was fortunate to identify someone with Mr. Connors' background," Brown said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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