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CANNELTON – Cannelton School Board members voted at a regular meeting Thursday to spend $14,500 from the city’s junior-senior high-school extracurricular fund without getting the students’ permission.
Schools Superintendent Al Sibbitt provided the board copies of guidance for the use of such funds in April when he explained a computer server was “on its last legs” and would likely need to be replaced. He said at the time, “we don’t have a lot of extra money, but there is a way to pay for this other than out of the general fund” and that he was hoping a grant would provide the needed funds instead.
The superintendent provided board members copies of an article from a State Board of Accounts publication, The School Administrator and Uniform Compliance Guidelines. As the News reported April 30, the guidance includes three provisions for using extracurricular general funds, also called student-activity funds, to purchase items such as computers.
The board complied with two of the provisions in April when they adopted a policy for the funds’ use and tentatively approved the purchase if other money didn’t become available.
The amount Sibbitt was seeking in April was approximately $8,000, “but by the time that was finished, their bill was over $18,000,” he said Thursday of the company that installed the equipment. The fund contained $14,899, he explained, and a vending machine to be placed in each of the high school’s hallways by the end of last week would provide proceeds to replenish the student-activity fund.
Neither Sibbitt nor any other board member mentioned the third provision at their April meeting or Thursday. It requires that “there are no objections from a majority of an applicable student body to these types of expenditures.”
“No, I did not,” Sibbitt said when asked if he’d polled the students. “Most of them would like to have computers here in the school and would like to have access to the Internet, and the only way they’re going to have that is if we purchase a new server. That’s not required by the law.”
“If you think we’re in violation of the law,” Sibbitt told the News, his voice growing loud, “you file a damn lawsuit! … You go to the damn circuit court and you file a lawsuit … either put up or shut up! You don’t have the guts to file one. All you want to do is cause trouble.”
That assertion was based on several News articles reporting the board had violated the state’s Open Door Law. After the most recent one was published, which reported the board violated the law in beginning a meeting 25 minutes earlier than they’d advertised, the superintendent called the News to ask if the newspaper intended to file a lawsuit against the school corporation and if official actions taken during the meeting needed to be repeated to ensure they were accomplished legally. Editor Vince Luecke told him neither would be necessary.
Reminded Thursday that he provided the guidance, Sibbitt said, “that comes from the State Board of Accounts. That’s not a law. That’s their guidelines.”
The guidance also notes that “since alternatives exist for funding educational expenditures (such as taxes) and other alternatives for the use of a general fund are available … we must emphasize the adoption of the aforementioned would be a public policy decision for which the local board of school trustees must accept any and all responsibility.”
All of the board members departed immediately after the meeting ended Thursday and Jerry Harris was the only one the News was able to contact Friday morning.
“I have no comment. You’ll have to talk to Mr. Sibbitt,” he said, hanging up.
“I don’t know that I agree it’s not against the law,” the State Board of Accounts’ Ryan Preston said Friday.
Identifying himself as an office supervisor for schools and townships, he said schools are required by law to comply with the agency’s Uniform Compliance Guidelines.
The SBA is “just a reporting agency,” which would notify the state’s attorney general or a prosecutor if it found theft or fraud, Preston said. Although that’s not the case in this expenditure, he said, “it’s probably a misuse of funds.”
The recourse for anyone who disagrees with the expenditure, he also said, would be to vote the involved school-board members out of office.