It's hard to imagine a situation in which finding millions of dollars could be bad news, but that's the case in the Montour School District.
Having the money isn't the problem, of course. That's great news for a district whose high school is in dire need of extensive renovations. No, the problem is that a huge reserve fund has been accruing in the district since 2004 and elected school board members didn't even know about it. At last count it held $28.7 million, equal to more than half the district's annual budget.
This revelation is just the latest example of serious problems in the district, which covers Ingram, Kennedy, Pennsbury Village, Robinson and Thornburg. The district and its 2,964 students have been in turmoil, with six different superintendents in the last decade.
When educational consultant Donald Boyer, a former finance director for the state Department of Education, took over as acting superintendent in September, he had to go hunting for audits, financial reports, budgets, staffing and personnel records, as well as information about the stalled high school project. In the process, one thing he learned was that the state owed Montour $1.9 million for an earlier construction project, money that wasn't paid because the district hadn't asked for it.
That was chump change compared to what turned up in audits that Dr. Boyer plans to present to the board this evening. The audits, also obtained by the Post-Gazette's Brian David under the state's Right to Know law, show that, when Montour adopted a property tax increase in 2004 to pay for a proposed $50 million high school, it had an appropriate reserve fund of $1.2 million. As plans for the new school were scrapped in favor of renovation, though, the reserve fund kept growing.
By 2008, when the school board rejected construction bids because they were over projections by $5 million, the district was sitting on $24 million. Some board members now say they never would have ditched those plans, hired another architect and essentially started over again if they'd known about the fund.
Even with changes in administration, as well as upheaval on the elected school board, it's hard to understand how so much money went unnoticed. That's especially true because the Pennsylvania school code says board members are supposed to approve audit reports and put them into their official board minutes every year, something that had not been happening in Montour.
By failing to keep track of taxpayers' dollars, board members failed to perform the duties for which they were elected. Beyond the disservice to property owners, who could have been paying a lower tax rate, they forced the district's high school students to remain in a partially gutted building with no library, science labs or auditorium. Board members should have made it their business to know better.
Dr. Boyer, who has tried to right these wrongs, has said he plans to leave the district at the end of May. Board members should start making up for their past mistakes by persuading him to stay on and continue working to bring accountability that has been absent from Montour for too long.