Several computers have gone missing from the Harrisburg School District’s finance office and those computers were not backed up to the district’s internal system as would normally be good business practice, officials said Tuesday.
Update: Scathing state audit of Harrisburg School District reveals more than $5 million in questionable costs
John George, the district’s new Financial Recovery Plan Service Director, announced earlier on Tuesday that important financial records had been discovered missing from the district Monday night. He later clarified to PennLive that the records missing were electronic records kept on several computers, and that the computers themselves had gone missing.
He did not say whether they were desktop or laptop computers.
George would not specify what kind of records were kept on the computers, but said they were not payroll records. Instead, George said the missing financial records kept on the computers were “electronic records that you would normally find at any school district.”
George said the records did not run the “full gamut” of district operations but represented “significant portions,” of key financial records.
“I know they are missing,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re missing or how they’re missing. The district has a backup system but it seems it was not used. When doing official work for the district, those should be backed up.”
George released the additional details after a news conference Tuesday morning designed to introduce the district’s new leaders from the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit. Harrisburg’s newly-appointed Receiver Janet Samuels contracted with the intermediate unit to provide most of the district’s central administrative functions for the next three years. The contract costs $1.4 million annually and represents a savings of $600,000 annually over the previous cost of those positions.
The contract followed an announcement by Samuels that 14 school district positions were being eliminated, including Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, in-house solicitor James Ellison and acting Business Manager Bilal Hasan, who ran the business office.
Samuels met individually with each affected employee prior to the public announcement at Thursday’s school board meeting that their job was being eliminated. In Hasan’s case, he was talked to several hours prior to the meeting. He attended the school board meeting but Knight-Burney and Ellison did not.
No employee was escorted out or forced to leave immediately, said Jeffrey Sultanik, the district’s new solicitor, because the belief was that they would handle the situation professionally.
The employees’ last day was Friday.
Within 24 hours of the new team starting their work Monday, someone noticed the missing computers from the business office, George said. He would not say whether police were investigating. Harrisburg police said they were not involved. A state police spokeswoman said she was checking whether her agency was called in.
Sultanik noted that destroying or damaging public records, including electronic records, is considered a crime. He also said there was evidence to support a police investigation.
George lead a team that transformed the Reading School District several years ago, and he said his team found missing records there as well, so the missing records in Harrisburg were not a complete surprise.
George said he could not comment on why or how the records went missing from Reading. He said the process to dig out from the financial chaos in Reading took about 90 days, including many 14-hour days. The process to determine Harrisburg’s financial situation will likely take as long, he said.
Kenn Medina, who worked as the district’s business manager until he was let go in 2017, said when he worked in the business office there were 14 to 20 computers there. He said the district at that time had transitioned to mostly assigned laptops to allow employees to work remotely, if necessary.
“That’s huge,” he said of the missing computers.
There are surveillance cameras on each floor of the school district central office that should have recorded anyone leaving the business office with computers, Medina said. There is only one entry/exit point for the business office, he said. There also are cameras in the stairwells.
Medina believes there are other electronic methods to piece together actions from those missing computers. He said each computer was networked to the district and had to interact with internal servers to get many actions accomplished. But it would be difficult to find work papers or private spreadsheets that may have been created on individual computers.
When he worked for the district, Medina said he uncovered several “vendors” that could not be identified as legitimate companies. Instead, payments went to P.O. boxes, he said. Those accounts were quickly shut down. But Medina said as he tried to continue to straighten out the business office, he was demoted, and then his new lower-paying position was eliminated under Knight-Burney.
As it stands, George said he has no confidence in the financial numbers that have been provided to his team so far. His team members already have discovered “significant errors in accounting procedures” after only one day.
“We know how much is going out for payroll,” he said. “We have a better handle on expenditures than we do on revenue at this point.”
The team from Montgomery County will have to go through 10,000 account codes individually to untangle the financial mess in the Harrisburg School District financial office. He said his team also could compare notes with the state department of education, which recently completed a state audit, although those findings have not been made public.
While George is confident he can figure out Harrisburg’s current financial status, he is less certain that he can trace back all expenditures if they were only documented on the missing computers.
Based on his experience in the Reading School District, and with one day under his belt in Harrisburg, George said there are several problem-areas he already can anticipate with Harrisburg.
“The financial records are in disarray,” he said. “The personnel records are in disarray. Not all positions are properly accounted for. I could not tell you how many people are employed by the district right now.”
The new financial team will immediately institute a position-control system, something that had been advocated for years to prior administrators but was never completed.
Once proper records have been created, George said he will be able to determine if employees are getting paid who aren’t actually showing up and performing any work. He said that was the case in Reading once they dug into the financial records.
But figuring out who “hired” the ghost employees would require additional work.
In addition to trying to find potential “ghost” employees, George said his team will be checking to ensure the rate of pay for all employees is proper, and that certain employees are not being paid unreasonable rates for the work they are performing.
An example he cited would be a teacher hired with two years of experience who was being paid as if they had seven years’ experience.
“When we find these situations, we will work to correct them,” he said. “Salary can be somewhat arbitrary. It can be a judgment call. But if it’s way out of whack, then that’s a different story.”
While the receiver already eliminated 14 positions in the Harrisburg School District, mostly central office administrative jobs, additional employees could be terminated in the coming months, George said.
As the team digs into Harrisburg’s business operations, they may encounter employees who are not qualified for their positions. Those employees would then need to be let go. That happened in Reading about a handful of times, George said.
One of the first things George’s team is going to do is check that employees have the proper certifications for the jobs they hold.
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