Comments hint at stormy Broken Arrow audit sessions

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 19-Aug-2010

The office of state Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage on Wednesday (August 18) presented the outline and substance of its investigative audit of the Broken Arrow Public School system. Members of the local school board met with auditors two at a time to hear the essentials of the report. The presentation was made at the Education Service Center in the Performing Arts Center of the city’s public schools.

Also present were the new local superintendent, and an attorney or attorneys from the Tulsa law firm of  Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold. Inclusion of the law firm is a source of controversy in the community. Legal fees paid to the firm have been roundly criticized by local reform activists.

After the audit was outlined in the separate sessions, Dr. Jarod Mendenhall, the new superintendent of Broken Arrow Public Schools, read this statement to reporters:

“In April, 2009, our School Board took the bold step to request the State Auditor’s Office to look into various allegations and suggestions surrounding our bidding and business practices, particularly those involving heating and air.

“Today, per the laws of Oklahoma that govern this process, the State Auditor’s Office made its findings available to our Board of Education members (in 2-2-1 meetings) and myself in a preview setting the statutes call for.

“We were not given a copy of the report to keep.  We have a great deal to digest and consider.  We will use the next two weeks to provide additional information and clarification to the auditor.

“It would be inappropriate of me or board members to offer analysis or conjecture on the details of the audit at this time since we do not have the audit report in front of us.

“As I understand it, that’s part of the reason that statutes allow for this type of preview in school board requested audits.

“I will be available to answer questions from media representatives about the State Audit of Broken Arrow Public Schools after the audit is made public by the State Auditor’s Office.”

Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, a local parent-activist who has monitored the burgeoning scandal for the last few years, sought in recent days to attend the briefings for two board members, but was told the summary would not be open to the public.

She challenged the inclusion of the school district’s law firm, whose work has, itself, been subjected to intense criticism and scrutiny in recent months. In exchanges with district officials, she noted that in the six previous audits of the school system, attorneys were not present when audit findings were unveiled.

She was interviewed by television reporters and others concerning the controversy, Mendenhall’s statement, and her concerns. Wednesday evening she told CapitolBeatOK:

“I am a Broken Arrow resident and parent of three BA students in high school as well as a concerned citizen.  I became involved with the Broken Arrow school system following the allegations of improper bidding procedures and misuse of funds a couple of years ago.  It frustrated me that those involved seemed determined to try to cover up and impede the investigation.”

Vuillemont-Smith said that after “a mysterious fire destroyed important paperwork” touching the recent investigation, it seemed to her “apparent that something fishy was going on.”  

“Last year I fought to defeat the Broken Arrow bond issue as I felt that it was too much money at the wrong time.  … I’m a firm believer in transparency, fiscal responsibility and accountability.”

Sources in Broken Arrow today told CapitolBeatOK that an attorney for the school district had said, in wake of the audit presentation, that the district would “hire the largest PR firm in Oklahoma”  to combat negative publicity in the controversy.

Vuillemont-Smith wants to know who is going to pay for the services of the largest PR firm in the state. In an exchange with the superintendent on Wednesday, she asked who would be responsible for that expense. Mendenhall said he did not know anything about the statement.
The conversation was witnessed by Tulsa reporters. Ashli Sims of newson6, the local CBS affiliate, interviewed Vuillemont-Smith, who said she wanted to know who would pay for the PR firm at least one attorney for the school district said would be hired.
The audit may  has been a source of remarkable tension both in Broken Arrow and the halls of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Last week, Auditor & Inspector Burrage had a press room confrontation with state Rep. Mike Reynolds after the legislator expressed concern that the audit might not be as comprehensive as hoped.
Sources with knowledge of the allegations and some of the current investigations into the district have told CapitolBeatOK documented mismanagement in the system may reach at least $3.1 million.
Involved are thousands of pages of documents, transcripts and individual exhibits, items which may or may not be part of the audit report, which will be made available to the public on September 2.