IWCS deputy superintendent certified staff error that cost schools half-million in state funds

Published 5:44 pm Monday, September 25, 2023

Deputy Superintendent Christopher Coleman, during his brief time as Isle of Wight County Schools’ acting leader, mistakenly certified to the state last year that the school division would give less than the 5% state-mandated teacher raise.

The error shorted the division half of the $1.1 million state funding supplement it should have been eligible to receive, and was one of several factors leading to its ending its 2022-23 school year with a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars.

The School Board had named Coleman acting superintendent during the roughly two-month window between the retirement of Superintendent Jim Thornton on June 30, 2022, and its hiring of Thornton’s successor, Theo Cramer, on Aug. 22. Coleman is now one of two deputy superintendents second in command to Cramer under the school division’s organizational structure.

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Coleman, on July 21, 2022, approved Isle of Wight’s superintendent certification report to the Virginia Department of Education. It listed a 2.5% raise rather than the full 5% the School Board had approved.

The report, which The Smithfield Times obtained from VDOE, had included language warning that divisions that certify less than the average 5% salary increase required in Virginia’s 2022-24 biennial budget would see their share of state funding prorated. Thornton had included similar language in his presentation of the then-proposed 2022-23 budget to the School Board on Feb. 10, 2022.

Coleman was one of at least two IWCS employees who had a role in the error. The other, identified in the VDOE report as Katherine Cale, no longer works for the division.

Cale, a seven-year employee of the division’s finance department, had submitted a draft of the report to the VDOE on July 15, 2022. Coleman’s review of the document six days later didn’t catch the error.

Cale left her employment with IWCS this April, according to her LinkedIn profile. She declined to comment on the matter when the Times contacted her on Sept. 25.

The Times requested comments from Coleman on Sept. 21 and received an emailed statement on behalf of the division on Sept. 22 from IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs attributing the error to personnel turnover within the finance department.

At the time of the error, the finance department “was working with several staffing vacancies,” Briggs said.

The department had been without a chief financial officer for nearly two months. Steve Kepnes, who held the CFO role under Thornton, left IWCS in May 2022. Rachel Trollinger, who had previously served in the finance department from 2016 through 2021, didn’t rejoin the division as Kepnes’ successor until Aug. 1, 2022, then tendered her own resignation to Cramer less than three months later on Oct. 24.

“Employees who were with the department at the time are no longer employed by the division, limiting the division’s ability to determine specific events related to the creation of the report,” Briggs’ statement reads.

CFO Larisa Harris, whom Cramer hired this February as Trollinger’s replacement, informed the School Board on Sept. 14 of last year’s error on the division’s VDOE report, and blamed the mistake on a then-unnamed employee now known to be Cale.

Cramer in August informed the School Board that IWCS had ended the 2022-23 school year more than $600,000 in the red, of which $438,506 remained as of Sept. 14. He blamed the deficit on overspending on transportation and substitute teacher wages, coupled with a nearly $945,000 reduction in state funding.

Cramer and his staff had initially attributed the state funding cut to a 2% decrease in enrollment from the 5,568 students expected last September, but acknowledged on Sept. 14 that the error on last year’s VDOE report was responsible for 60% of the funding loss.

Briggs’ statement asserts IWCS has put safeguards in place to prevent similar errors on its VDOE reports from occurring again.

Specifically, all financial reports submitted to the state are now to be reviewed “in detail by multiple division officials before they are signed” by the superintendent, Briggs’ statement reads.