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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)

When an effort was launched seven years ago to renovate the football field and outdoor athletic facility at Shorewood High School, the deal was pitched as a win-win.

Parents and students would get fanfriendly, updated playing fields that also could generate revenue by being rented, and the improvements would be financed through private donations, so the district could keep its finances focused on academics. When private money dried up and the renovation project went over budget, the work continued anyway, leaving taxpayers with the bill, Shorewood School District officials have confirmed.

A new financial review showed that taxpayers shouldered about $800,000 of the total $4.1 million in construction costs.

Separately, Shorewood has turned up another financial oddity: a surplus of about $200,000 in a fund for student fees, which should have only had between $30,000 and $40,000 in it.

The one thing that's clear is that nobody knows exactly how either issue happened. But both incidents have prompted speculation that the district needs to be paying better attention to its bookkeeping.

"It's unnerving," said Nancy Peske, a Shorewood High School parent who has followed the athletic facilities renovation project from the beginning.

"This is old, ugly stuff that's come around. It was not handled in a trans- parent way that was respectful of taxpayers and their money," she said.

Both issues came to light when interim business manager Mike Garty reviewed the district's finances.

Garty stepped into the role after former business manager Mark Boehlke left Shorewood at the end of 2012-'13 for an assistant superintendent job in the Sheboygan Area School District.

Garty noticed the issue because the district's construction fund was carrying a negative balance. Like a bank account, that can't happen. The district already spent the $800,000 - district leaders said the last bill was paid at least two years ago. Straightening out the figures on the books was simply a transaction on paper, albeit one that pointed to the total dollar figure spent.

The district originally was supposed to contribute only $200,000 to the project.

"It's a bigger deficit than we thought, but I'm glad we found it," said Shorewood school board member David Cobb, who also is chair of the board's finance committee.

Behind the scenes, there's disagreement about whether former board members or former administrators kept the athletic facility project going, despite knowing that issues had popped up that had made the project more expensive and that outside money that had been promised wasn't materializing. Publicly, Boehlke simply said he didn't think it was appropriate to discuss matters at his former employer.

The $4.1 million in renovations covered the new football field, new track and new bleachers, and some work on the softball field.

The original plan called for new team rooms and a concessions building as well, but those renovations haven't happened yet, Shorewood spokeswoman Rachel Vesco said.

A committee that called itself Drive 2 Distinction, or D2D, formed in 2007 to seek private donations to pay for the renovations. At one point it had big ideas of covering the field with a dome. Ultimately, the group raised about $3.3 million for the project.

Back in 2007, Sean Cummings, chair of the D2D committee, told the school board the project would largely be "pay as you go."

But that didn't happen. The recession slowed fundraising, and several parts of the work became more expensive than anticipated, Cobb said.

"The simple story is, the group said they were going to pay for this through donations. They didn't raise enough money, and the project was built anyway," Cobb said.

Cummings did not return a call seeking comment.

From deficit to surplus In the student fees fund, a reverse situation has happened: Garty, the business manager, recently uncovered a significant surplus.

The fund is supposed to be used for things like out-oftown trips for students, and Cobb said it's supposed to have about $30,000 to $40,000 in it each year.

"So now we're looking at, this is a quarter of a million dollars, what are we going to do with it?" he said.

Cobb said the board is figuring out how the extra money got there, and then how it can spend it.

One possibility is that the fund was being erroneously fed by more than one other district account.

Transferring the money back to the district's general operations fund is not easy. The state restricts how money in certain accounts can be spent, even if the money got into that restricted account by accident.

Cobb said he's trying to look at the situation matter-of-factly. He wasn't around when these two financial situations happened, but it's the current board's job to address them.

"We do have an intention of doing a full audit of this and our business accounting systems," he said. "We need to make sure there are no other gaps we don't know about."

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April 22, 2014

 

 
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