IWCS CFO Larisa Harris resigns, third to leave the role since 2022

Published 6:07 pm Monday, March 4, 2024

Isle of Wight County Schools has lost its chief financial officer for the third time in two years.

CFO Larisa Harris, whom Superintendent Theo Cramer hired in early 2023, resigned effective March 1 after just over a year in the role.

IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, in a March 4 email to The Smithfield Times, confirmed but did not state a reason for Harris’ departure.

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Harris’ resignation marks the latest development in the division’s efforts to recover from a prior-year deficit and plan for the next school year.

A January audit of the county’s 2022-23 finances found IWCS had exceeded its budgeted operating expenses by $703,151 or roughly $100,000 more than the $603,163 shortfall Cramer had acknowledged in August. Auditors blamed high turnover in personnel for financial misstatements that left the division still $345,717 in the red as of Jan. 2.

Cramer, in a Feb. 8 report to the School Board, said he’d eliminated the prior-year deficit by pulling an equivalent amount from the current year’s budget and freezing spending through June 30.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 22, Cramer presented the School Board with $21 million in departmental requests for budget increases, including a bus garage renovation, new school buses and other large one-time expenses. The division was to release and hold a public hearing on its draft 2024-25 budget on March 7, which Briggs said will now have to be postponed due to Harris’ departure.

According to Briggs, IWCS has hired Jim Roberts, a retired superintendent formerly of Chesapeake Public Schools, as its interim CFO to assist the division with completing the budget for next year.

“We expect Dr. Roberts to provide a timeline by the end of the week on when the budget book will be completed,” Briggs said. “At that point, we will be able to reschedule the public hearing and coordinate any additional meetings in order to have the budget to the county by the end of March.”

School Board Chairman Jason Maresh declined to comment on Harris’ resignation. The School Board held a closed-session meeting on Feb. 28 for the stated purpose of discussing “the resignation of a central office staff member” who at that point hadn’t been identified. “No board action was required” to hire Roberts, Maresh said.

Briggs said Roberts doesn’t have a contract yet but that his employment will eventually be voted upon by the board as part of the monthly personnel report for March.


A ‘revolving door’

Cramer, in January, referred to the turnover that’s plagued the division’s finance department over the past two years as a “revolving door.”

Cramer’s predecessor as superintendent, Jim Thornton, retired, and Thornton’s CFO, Steve Kepnes, resigned within roughly a month of each other at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The CFO role remained vacant for the first three months of the 2022-23 school year. Rachel Trollinger, who was hired in August 2022 as Kepnes’ replacement shortly before Cramer’s arrival that same month, tendered her own resignation in October of that year, telling School Board members at a Nov. 10, 2022, meeting she could “no longer in good conscience” stand before them “and state that the school division was being good stewards with county or taxpayer funds.”

After Trollinger’s departure, the CFO role stayed vacant another three months until Cramer, in February 2023, recruited Harris from Portsmouth Public Schools.

Cramer, in August, had attributed the prior school year’s deficit to a nearly $945,000 reduction in state funding coupled with overspending on transportation and substitute teacher wages. He blamed Kepnes for allegedly allocating insufficient funds in the 2022-23 budget to continue bus driver raises the School Board had funded in early 2022 with expiring federal Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, pandemic relief money, though Kepnes denied the allegation.

Cramer and his staff initially attributed the state funding cut to a 2% decrease in enrollment from the 5,568 students IWCS had expected at the start of the 2022-23 school year, but later acknowledged employees had mistakenly listed in a 2022 report to the Virginia Department of Education that IWCS would give its teachers 2.5% raises rather than the state-mandated 5%. The error shorted the division half of the $1.1 million state funding supplement it should have been eligible to receive for giving the full raise.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on March 5 with additional details.