Boone County Board of Education to vote on forensic audit

Giuseppe Sabella , Staff Writer

FOSTER, W.Va. — The Boone County Board of Education decided Tuesday evening to continue the suspension of three employees while an embezzlement investigation is ongoing.

The body will also vote April 3 to decide if a forensic audit of the district’s finances is needed.
At a meeting on March 20, board member Susan Kimbler suggested a discussion and vote on a possible forensic audit of the school system. Speaking to the crowd of about 60 guests Tuesday, Kimbler said West Virginia’s state auditor, John McCuskey, offered to do the audit — possibly for free. She said he will join the discussion April 3 to explain how the audit works and what issues can be targeted.

“We have a responsibility as a board to make sure that our tax dollars entrusted to us are used in an appropriate manner,” she said.

Board President Joe Tagliente Jr. said a forensic audit of every department in the county would likely cost up to $100,000. However, with McCuskey’s help and the right planning, it may not cost the board anything.

He said the embezzlement case, in which authorities say at least two employees stole more than $20,000, is an embarrassment for everyone who cares about Boone County Schools.

“We are for running the best financial ship in the ocean,” he said.

The school system undergoes an audit every year, but Tagliente said a forensic audit would allow the board to target specific areas of concern and review possible issues in detail.

He said the board is taking every precaution it can to prevent more fraud, and he promised its members would not “plea bargain” with people who cheat the school system.

“We’re in the process right now of draining the swamp,” he said.

After several closed executive sessions, the board decided to continue the suspension without pay of three employees as the West Virginia State Police continue to investigate the embezzlement case.

The employees are David Jarrell, the transportation director; Tracy Harvey, a mechanic and purchasing agent; and Robin Gabbert, who is listed as an accountant on the West Virginia Department of Education’s website.

Gabbert stormed out of the meeting after board members voted to extend the suspensions.

She stood outside — visibly shaken — and said she would never steal or embezzle anything. Gabbert then declined further comment.
Danny Cantley, a current member of the board, is also under investigation. Superintendent Jeff Huffman said he had not talked to Cantley before the meeting and was unsure why he didn’t attend.

During a session for public comments, Boone County resident Beth Burns pleaded with the board to vote in favor of a forensic audit.

Burns is a speech-language pathologist at Brookview Elementary, and her husband is a physical education teacher at Scott High School.

Between their two jobs, Burns said she and her husband have served the community for about 40 years.

“We have a large number of students living, or should I say surviving, in poverty,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.

As someone with four daughters in the school system, Burns said she is discouraged by the decreasing number of teachers and resources.

She said her school will lose Title I funding next year, along with its part-time vice principal. It will also lose a full-time nurse and full-time counselor.
“I get angrier still when I read headlines that contain the word embezzlement,” she said. “We are discouraged from talking about this word at our schools, but I can assure you it’s at the forefront of most our minds,” she said.

While the forensic audit may uncover issues, Burns said she hopes the results will show calculated and honest spending.

Addressing another woman’s comments, Huffman said the topic of transparency arose several times at a meeting in July.

“And I made the statement, ‘I’ll be so transparent you can see straight through me,’” he said.

Huffman said he provides the meeting attendees with a monthly update on the revenue received from tax collections and the number of students enrolled in the county’s schools.

He said the county lost 151 students between Oct. 2015 and Oct. 2016, along with another 84 since then. He also said the county is projected to receive $15 million less than it had four years ago.

“I have no desire to be anything other than honest,” he said.