Collick, Maresh split over reprimanding Cramer for IWCS deficit

Published 5:23 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Isle of Wight County School Board Chairman John Collick in early September asked Vice Chairman Jason Maresh to support him in reprimanding Superintendent Theo Cramer for providing what Collick described in an email as “misleading information to the board” concerning the school division’s ending its 2022-23 school year with a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars.

Maresh, however, wasn’t on board with the idea, and was more inclined to lay blame – as Cramer had – with administrators in place prior to Cramer’s August 2022 arrival.

The Smithfield Times obtained the email exchange through a Freedom of Information Act request. Collick told the Times he didn’t recall the exchange with Maresh but said he ultimately did not move forward with asking the board to reprimand Cramer.

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Cramer informed the School Board on Aug. 10 that the division had overspent its 2022-23 budget by more than $600,000. At the board’s Sept. 14 meeting, he reported that IWCS remained $438,506 in the red.

“At this point, I cannot validate anything Dr. Cramer mentioned at the last school board meeting concerning the budget override,” Collick wrote to Maresh on Sept. 5. “Therefore, I am working hard to identify what actually happened.”

Cramer attributed the deficit to overspending on transportation and substitute teacher wages, coupled with a nearly $945,000 reduction in state funding.

The School Board had voted in early 2022 to raise the minimum pay for bus drivers and bus assistants to $20 per hour and $15 per hour, respectively, and to fund the raises for the then-remaining six months of the 2021-22 school year with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, money the division had received from a federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Cramer in August alleged Isle of Wight County Schools’ former chief financial officer, Steve Kepnes, had never identified a non-ESSER funding source to continue the raises into the 2022-23 school year. Kepnes and Cramer’s predecessor as superintendent, Jim Thornton, each disputed the allegation.

Included in Cramer’s Sept. 14 presentation on the deficit, per an Aug. 15 request from Collick, was a breakdown of the division’s budget versus actual expenses for regular, special education, athletic and summer drivers, bus monitors and transportation maintenance employees.

Cramer and his staff had initially attributed the state funding cut to a 2% decrease in enrollment from the 5,568 students expected in September 2022, but acknowledged on Sept. 14 that an error on one of the division’s reports to the state was responsible for 60% of the funding loss. Specifically, the division had mistakenly certified to the state last year that it would give less than the 5% state-mandated teacher raise approved by the School Board. The error shorted the division half the $1.1 million in supplemental state funding Isle of Wight should have been eligible to receive for giving its teachers the full 5%.

Collick himself, in his Aug. 15 email thread with Cramer, questioned Cramer’s assertion of having shaved $540,000 off an originally $2.2 million deficit by deferring the purchase of four school buses.

“All I can find is ‘CAP Replace Vehicles’ not being funded,” Collick wrote to Cramer, referencing a May 12, 2022, line-by-line breakdown of the division’s then-proposed 2022-23 budget, which had left blank lines for capital replacement of vehicles and capitalized lease payments.

Larisa Harris, whom Cramer hired in February as the division’s new CFO, asserted at the School Board’s Sept. 14 meeting that Isle of Wight’s longstanding practice has been to use leftover funds during school years that ended in a surplus to fund new buses, and hasn’t included bus purchases as a line in its budget since the 2016-17 school year. Thornton, in a Sept. 25 letter to the editor of the Times calling for Cramer’s resignation, disputed Harris’ assertion.

Collick’s Sept. 5 email to Maresh states the proposed reprimand “would be discussed in a closed meeting.”

“It’s not meant to be punitive but does formally tell him to ensure he’s accurate in future statements,” Collick wrote.

Maresh, in a same-day reply, urged Collick “not to rush to conclusions, but instead be patient as Dr. Cramer and his staff collect themselves.”

“This board is relatively new (except for [Denise] Tynes), the superintendent is new, the CFO is new, and we were all handed a hot mess,” Maresh wrote.

“Jason, I think that for the first time since you’ve been on the board, you and I significantly disagree,” Collick responds in a heavily-redacted reply. “Obviously, without your support … I will continue to ask my questions.”

Isle of Wight County Schools cited Virginia Code 2.2-3705.1 for the redaction, which allows, but doesn’t require, personnel information concerning “identifiable individuals” contained within public records to be excluded from mandatory disclosure under FOIA.