Looking back, moving forward

the BISD Board of Managers

First seated by state intervention in July 2014, the Beaumont Independent School District Board of Managers hit the ground running to set about righting the wrongs of the school district’s prior elected officials. When the seven managers — board president Dr. Jimmy Simmons, Jack Carroll, Dr. Vernice Monroe, A.B. Bernard, Robert Turner, Lenny Caballero, and Joe Domino — were selected by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams to lead the troubled school district, BISD had been left facing a multi-million dollar budget deficit, hundreds of educator layoffs and the fallout from a massive four-pronged state investigation into educator-sanctioned cheating on standardized tests, attendance fraud, special education disparity and financial mismanagement.

Within just a few short months on the job, the BISD Board of Managers has addressed much of the noted deficiencies that were looming over the school district, and is actively pursuing investigations to root out any lingering hindrances to BISD’s stated mission – providing a free and appropriate education to all its students while serving the public’s best interest both financially and in substance. In an exclusive interview with The Examiner, Board of Managers President Dr. Simmons talks about the lengths traversed to get to the current state of the district and what the board is doing to move forward in the new year.

“We took over and immediately there was no budget,” Simmons recalled with chagrin. “We had to reduce the budget by $40 million and balance it. It was an enormous task, but we balanced it – that’s a major accomplishment.”

Simmons said the board also worked to prevent laying off qualified educators, and is currently seeking to build up the district’s qualified teacher pool.

“As you look at the teachers, we are now in a position where we are searching for teachers,” Simmons said, adding that the budget deficit culled at the beginning of the year still left plenty of funding available to retain and recruit enough teachers to completely staff the district. “We have open positions that need to be filled, and we’re encouraging our teachers to recruit, recruit, recruit. It’s not that we can’t afford them.”

What the district could not afford, he said, was a police department that was systematically overspending by millions of dollars annually.

“We took a police force that we think went over budget by three or four million dollars the year before we got here, and cut that down substantially,” Simmons said. “We got rid of motorcycles, K-9 units, whatever we could while keeping a force that was adequate to keep our staff and students protected. We also terminated the former police chief,” who Simmons said was heading the BISD police department when the excess funds were expended.

Although there was disagreement in the community as to whether staffing a school district police department was in the best interest of stakeholders, Simmons said the decision to keep the BISD PD was the most economical avenue given all the facts.

“People are assuming if we got the Beaumont Police Department to do it, we would save money – like they’d do it for free,” Simmons said. “Whether we pay our own force or sub-contract, it’s going to cost money – that’s just the reality of it.”

Simmons did say that the cost effectiveness of the BISD police department could be addressed at a later date, as the Board of Managers is currently anticipating the arrival of an internal auditor, who will work for and report to the board – and only the board.

“We’re in the process of completing an agreement with an internal auditor who will be joining us in the middle of January,” Simmons said. “This person will answer directly to the board, will work for the board. They will make sure all of our internal controls are in place, and will be doing a complete audit of all our processes.

“It’s an invaluable asset to have. The first thing we need is a complete inventory – a complete review of all our processes. This could take a year. In the meantime, there will be special projects coming up where we will want immediate attention directed somewhere, but for the long-term we think it is vital that when we leave, we want to leave everything in tiptop shape.”

According to Simmons, most school districts the size of BISD have an internal audit division, and it is the goal of the Board of Managers to staff an office that will attend to that need.

“This will be a spectacular hire – we’re very excited about the candidate we have,” Simmons said. The new hire is still working in their current position until Jan. 1, which prevents Simmons from announcing the lone candidate’s name at this point, he said, but he assures the community that the selection is top-notch. In a recent Board of Managers public meeting, Simmons was given the go-ahead to enter into a contract with a new internal auditor but said that he has kept the remaining members of the board abreast on the candidate selection process.

The board has also had input on what tasks will be exacted by the new hire once they come on board mid-January.

“The job of the internal auditor will be to not only review our processes and safeguards, but to inventory departments as well,” Simmons said. “It will cover many, many things – it can be athletics, maintenance, transportation. … On a regular basis, you want to get to every division where there’s some kind of accounting – personnel, resources, equipment, everything.”

Aside from the internal auditor, Simmons said, the board really only has one other employee – the superintendent – and the board is currently looking to re-staff that position in the coming year.

“We hired a firm to search for a new superintendent – we’re well on the road with that,” he said. “The board does not have the power to hire and fire faculty and staff – the only person we can hire and fire is the superintendent.”

Up until now, interim superintendent Vernon Butler has been allowed to be the sole decider of new hires, but that process will also change in the new year, Simmons said. “He will come us at the end of January on all hires – and we’ll have a committee to help with that.”

Simmons added that other new faces coming to the BISD team this year will also include a group of lawyers commissioned to take over an internal investigation into attendance fraud noted at multiple BISD campuses.

“There are attendance reporting problems that we are still investigating – we took it out of the hands of an internal group of investigators, and we have turned that over to an external group of attorneys who have come in to do just that,” he said, adding that the attorneys’ mandate will be to “look at all the ramifications of the attendance issue that we had: Was there any criminal activity? Was it intentional? Who sanctioned it? Things like that, that we need the answers to.”

On a positive attendance note, Simmons added, “The flight that was anticipated did not happen. We have more students attending this year than we anticipated. The fact that it’s more than expected is extremely encouraging, financially. We’re very excited about that.”

While Simmons said it is not the intention of the board to rehash the past, the group must take inventory of where it’s been in order to move forward.

“Even though we don’t want to dwell on the past, we do want to start with a clean slate,” he said. “Knowing all the past financial issues have been brought to pass and solved is something that’s needed – for this school district, and for this community. With a forensic audit, we’ll be able to address that need.”

Simmons said that the incoming internal auditor will be able to assist with a forensic audit, but “the primary purpose is two separate functions – really every audit is a forensic audit, but the forensic auditors are specifically going to work on the bond.”

To what extent the findings of the audit on the district’s 2007 $388 million bond projects will benefit justice remains to be seen, but Simmons said he is confident that if criminal wrongdoing is exposed, there will be recourse available to the school district.

“My understanding is there may be some limitations, but not completely,” he said.

“The statute of limitations, as I understand, has not completely run out on the bond issue and there may be something we can do to bring those to justice and expose those who did not have the good of the people in mind when they were billing BISD taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars that may not have been warranted.

“There’s a lot of issues and misgivings about how the funds were spent that could end up with criminal charges. We’re not so far out that we’re just not going to be able to anything.”

Furthermore, Simmons added as to the need to provide a forensic audit of the $388 million bond expenditures for the public, “I don’t think the district would ever be able to pass another bond issue if we didn’t do this forensic audit and account for every penny of the taxpayers’ dollars. It’s critical – and we’re going to make sure it happens.”

Simmons said the school district paid former auditor Gayle Botley in excess of $600,000 to provide two annual audits for the school district and perform a comprehensive bond audit. Botley produced no audits, Simmons said, and BISD is currently seeking legal recourse against Botley.

Other pending legal action, Simmons said, could result from an ongoing investigation into educator-sanctioned cheating on standardized tests. According to Simmons, the school district is not involved in conducting the investigation, which is currently being handled by the Texas Education Agency and the U. S. Attorney’s Office.

Simmons said the appointed Board of Managers is working diligently to leave BISD in a much better place than when the managers first started.

“This board is the finest group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “This is not a position any of us sought. We’re not politicians, we are doing this with no agenda – and we are doing the right thing. It’s a slow process, though, and I wish it was faster.”

Simmons said there is a lot of confusion as to when an election will be held to allow voters to select the next BISD Board of Trustees – and who will actually be responsible for calling that election in the first place.

“I agreed to work for 24 months, and at the end of that time if there’s not a board seated, I would have to seriously think about if I wanted to extend my term – our agreement was 24 months,” Simmons said, adding that he has zero intention of running for the elected office once it’s called to vote. “I will not run – I don’ think any of this current Board of Managers will run. We were appointed to do a job. Once we finish our appointed term, I would assume we let the public decide who will replace us.

“When I was appointed, I was told the next election would be called by TEA, not by the board. There seems to be some confusion as to who actually calls it. There’s a possibility there could be a November 2015 election. … Our attorneys are checking on that.”

Simmons said he has learned a lot in his short time on the BISD dais.

“I have great empathy for school board members that I didn’t have before this job,” he said. “I never knew how hard a job it was, and now I know better.

“A lot of thought and consideration goes into everything we do – not just board meetings,” which have routinely lasted four or more hours at a time, he said. “We set up seven committees which board members chair; there’s a lot of extra time the board members will spend with staff, and there are several more committees we will put together at the next board meeting. It’s a lot of time that we put in that no one really knows about. They think you go to a board meeting and everything happens there. There’s nowhere we go that someone doesn’t stop you and have questions and concerns, and it’s our job to attend to those concerns.”

As for the marathon board meeting, Simmons said they are a necessary evil when considering the intense amount of work going on behind the scenes.

“What takes so long is we want detail – we don’t want to just wax over it and go on the next issue,” he said. “We spend a lot of time trying to make sure we get to the core of the issue. We have to make sure we’re comfortable with what we’re doing and understand it, because we have to be accountable for every decision that gets made.”

Again, Simmons reiterated, the goal is to bring BISD to a place where the community can be proud of its school district.

“At this time, I’m very excited about the changes I see, and it’s encouraging to see the progress we’re making,” he said. “A lot of it is not particularly available to the public yet, but you really have to wear the shoes to appreciate the job. It’s so easy from the outside looking in to second guess and wonder why this happened or that happened.

“But just know that the quality of this board is immeasurable – we have the budget under control, we’re in the process of policy reviewing every process we have … basically, we’re questioning every item, every expenditure, everything that’s being told to us. … We’re in the process of changing the culture at BISD, and I’m confident the community will be better for it all in the end.”