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Education

Odyssey Charter says it is making progress on probation terms

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Delaware Public Media
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Odyssey Charter School has sent the state Department of Education and auditors paperwork describing more than $250,000 in expenses that could not be documented during an audit of the school’s books last year, the chairman of the school’s board of directors said this week.

“All of the supporting documentation … that Odyssey was unable to provide” last year has been located and delivered, Josiah Wolcott said.

Odyssey, a Greek-themed K-12 charter school in suburban Wilmington that enrolls more than 1,900 students, had been placed on probation last summer by the state Department of Education after the department’s Charter Schools Accountability Committee determined that some of Odyssey’s management policies and actions, as well as some financial transactions, violated the terms of its charter. The probation remains in effect until June 30. Among the conditions of its probation were requirements that the school recover more than $93,000 improperly spent on planning a separate preschool program and for out-of-state travel, and that it pay for an “investigatory audit” into selected school accounts. That audit, completed in December by Santora CPA Group, identified 143 transactions totaling $251,764.39 for which the school could not provide supporting documentation.

The missing paperwork covered a wide range of financial obligations, including payments to the Delaware Soccer Officials Association, the school’s private accounting firm, an insurance company, an educational publisher, a power-washing business and workers in the school’s aftercare program.

When Odyssey was granted a five-year renewal of its charter in December, it was advised that the renewal was contingent upon clearing up the concerns raised by the audit.

Wolcott attributed the school’s inability to initially locate the documents to the relatively short time frame in which the audit was conducted and the staffing limitations of the school’s finance team, which he said has not grown in proportion to the school’s steadily expanding enrollment.

The auditors requested “a sampling over a three-year period over about $70 million of budget over seven to 10 days during one of the busiest periods of the school year,” he said. Some supporting documents couldn’t be located right away, in part because some employees in the school’s business office weren’t working there during the period covered by the audit, so they weren’t sure where to look for the files, he added.

Whether submission of the recently found documentation will close the audit concerns is not clear. The next step for the Department of Education is to have its Charter School Office review the materials, a spokesperson said.

Wolcott said he does not expect a quick response from the department. “It’s a lot of documentation, a full 3-inch binder … and it will take a while to go through,” he said.

As of now, Odyssey has fulfilled all but two terms of its probation: recovering the $93,000-plus in improperly spent funds and developing a plan for building communication and trust with the school community.

“Steps are being taken” to recover the funds and that should be accomplished before the June 30 deadline specified in the probation notice, Wolcott said. Odyssey has already given the Charter School Office a preliminary indication of what will be included in its communication and trust plan, which is due by March 1, he added.

A mini controversy developed last month when state charter school regulators expressed dissatisfaction with Santora’s audit. They were anticipating a report that would explain whether Odyssey had done anything improper, not just a list of undocumented expenses. State Auditor Kathy McGuiness said in early January that Santora did what it was contracted to do, and performed that work to her satisfaction.

Wolcott said he hopes that either Santora or the Department of Education will issue a statement indicating “that we have done what they have asked of us.” He also anticipates ongoing discussions with the department concerning the school’s efforts to improve its transparency on financial matters.

“The [state] auditor had them [Santora] look for stuff, and they looked. It was not Odyssey’s only audit and they paid for both, said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network and a non-voting member of the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Accountability Committee, noting Odyssey went through its regular annual audit and the one required under terms of its probation. “Let’s move on,” she said.

Massett did note that the state law governing charter schools does give the state auditor authority to set standards and guidelines for audits of charter schools. Officials noted last month that one of the reasons for the Department of Education’s disappointment over the audit Santora produced is that “investigatory audit” is not a term regularly used by the accounting profession, so there may have been misunderstandings when the parameters of the audit were discussed.

 

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