North Stonington - Members of the Board of Education voted during a special meeting last week to request a forensic audit of the district's finances after the board's finance subcommittee became concerned about possible misuse of the district's credit cards, personal reimbursements, grant money and professional development funds by an individual or individuals.
The individual in question was not named during the hour-and-a-half meeting, but several people with knowledge of school finances said it was Superintendent Natalie J. Pukas.
"I think what we've uncovered as a committee, with the assistance of the business manager in cooperation, warrants an independent and extensive review of the Board of Education funds," said board member Robert Testa in an audiotape of the April 9 meeting.
On Monday, Pukas said she could not comment, as she had just returned from chaperoning a school trip to Florida over last week's spring break and had not attended the meeting or heard the recording.
"When someone is submitting for reimbursement and claiming a legitimate purpose and we find out it's not, I look at it as, is that the tip of the iceberg? How far back do we need to look?" Testa said. "And I doubt it's the first time, and we've only as a committee looked a year back and we've already got concerns. I look at it as, when someone is using district credit card, regardless of who it is, they know what is work-related, they know what is personal and when we find out personal use has been done on multiple occasions and the explanation is, 'I grabbed the wrong credit card,' once is a mistake, several times is not."
Testa and board members Chris Hundt, Ed Scarchilli and Phil Mendolia all voted in favor of the forensic audit, while Walt Mathwich was opposed. Board Chairman Darren Robert and members Crystal Dame and Dave McCord did not attend the meeting.
First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II, Selectman Shawn Murphy and Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring were all at the meeting.
The issue will be discussed during Wednesday's regularly scheduled school board meeting.
Mathwich, the lone dissenter, said the financial discrepancies may have been due to interpretations of contractual language and not intentionally committed.
In an email Monday, chairman Robert said he, too, did not support a forensic audit using the town's money.
"As far as I have seen, the only problem we have is within the language of our policies. We need to make sure that we spell out exactly what is X and what is Y for all of us," Robert said. "Whether we are talking about what is reimbursable, or what is professional development, we all need to have the same idea. ... As I have always said, I have nothing to hide, and I don't believe that anyone has done anything wrong. I just don't want the town to have to pay to for something that isn't necessary."
Testa said district Business Manager Chuck McCarthy discovered some of the discrepancies in expenditures, which a recent annual audit of the district's budget also found.
Hundt, noting he was not an accountant, said an independent review of the district's finances would find the money in question, something not readily apparent to one untrained in accounting.
He said the money was used by the individual as a way to supplement his or her income and that the individual was possibly "double dipping" by receiving money in the budget reserved for professional development and also submitting receipts for, and being reimbursed for, those same costs.
"If there is fraud, waste and abuse, we, as members of the Board of Education and elected members of this community, have a fiduciary responsibility to do what's right," Hundt said. "It may be uncomfortable, but we have to do what is right."
Pukas is retiring June 29 after 38 years in the district, the last 12 as superintendent. She will earn $125,875 this year; $46,598 was set aside in this year's budget to search for a new superintendent and to pay Pukas for unused sick and vacation days.
No determination was made during the April 9 meeting about who would pay for the forensic audit, but Murphy, the selectman, said at the meeting that the school board would need to request an additional appropriation from the town budget.