Editorial – Here we go again at IWCS: Another CFO gone

Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Given its recent history of overspending and general fiscal mayhem, we’d normally not suggest that Isle of Wight County Schools spend more money on anything.

But in the interest of righting its fiscal ship and bringing badly needed stability to its bookkeeping, the school division needs to pay whatever it takes to recruit an experienced, competent, proven chief financial officer to the central office.

News of yet another departed CFO, this time Larisa Harris, has created new urgency for a school system beleaguered by breadbasket turnover on its accounting staff and a trail of financial missteps.

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In case you haven’t followed the six-month-and-running saga, IWCS exceeded its budgeted operating expenses by $703,151, according to an audit by the accounting firm Robertson Farmer Cox, or roughly $100,000 more than the $603,163 shortfall Cramer had acknowledged in August. According to the audit, IWCS remained $345,717 in the red as of the new calendar year.

Superintendent Dr. Theo Cramer and School Board Chair Jason Maresh have blamed turnover in the school division’s finance department for accounting errors the audit attributed to a “material weakness” in oversight and a second finding against IWCS that alleges “one instance of noncompliance” that’s “required to be reported under Government Auditing Standards.”

For “several months” during the 2022-23 year “we did not have a chief financial officer,” Cramer said in January. Cramer’s predecessor as superintendent, Jim Thornton, retired, and the division’s former CFO, Steve Kepnes, resigned within roughly a month of Thornton’s departure at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The CFO role remained vacant for the first three months of 2022-23. Rachel Trollinger, who was hired in August 2022 as Kepnes’ replacement, tendered her own resignation in October of that year. The role remained vacant for another three months until Cramer hired Larisa Harris a year ago.

After a closed-door meeting in January, Maresh told citizens that the board discussed unspecified “personnel issues” and declared: “The staff that we have on board today is the right staff. There has been some accountability; it’s been taken care of.”

But now Harris is gone less than two months later.

Cramer, with the full support of the School Board, should identify a sitting CFO at another school division with a spotless record of accurate bookkeeping and clean audits. This is no time to promote from within, to hire someone with bookkeeping experience in another sector, or to take a chance on a lieutenant in another school division. It is abundantly clear to us that education accounting is a complex exercise not conducive to on-the-job training.