School board: Use trust fund as it was intended

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In 2012, the state attorney general rebuked former Cannelton Schools Superintendent Al Chapman for improperly using the Dorothy von Solbrig Income Trust Fund.

Current Superintendent Alva Sibbitt Jr. told the board June 19 a settlement agreement reached last month means the trust fund can now be used to pay any legitimate corporation bills. Almost immediately and on his recommendation, as we report in this edition, the school board voted unanimously and without discussion to spend $18,000 from the fund on legal bills.

A spokesman for Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office told the News last week that office, which was party to the agreement, has no authority to and did not OK the spending.  

As we have reported, Zoeller said in an August 2012 news release he had filed a lawsuit against Chapman for what the attorney general called “one of the largest government misappropriation cases in recent years.”

The board fired Chapman in December 2011 after accusing him, among other things, of failing “to manage the financial affairs of the school corporation in a prudent, reasonable, or professional manner resulting in financial problems and extra expense for the corporation.”

Several accusations were made against Chapman and his alleged improper spending amounted to $615,586.55, according to Zoeller’s news release. Included in that amount was $333,333.33 given to the school corporation through a Dorothy von Solbrig Income Trust.

“By law, the base amount or principal of such a gift from a trust is to remain untouched; but any interest income derived from it can be used by the school corporation,” Zoeller’s 2012 news release said.

“Interest from this gift was intended for high-school improvements or scholarships. Instead, (a state) audit said, Chapman instructed the school treasurer to use the gift to pay invoices and catch up on withholding taxes the school system owed. The audit found the entire gift amount – the principal, not the interest – had been disbursed, and the school’s general fund was overdrawn by $430,091.”

“Zoeller said he hopes the civil lawsuit the state has filed against the terminated ex-superintendent will send a message to other government employees who handle public money that they can’t embezzle or misspend public funds without legal consequences,” the release also asserted.

As we report in this edition, Sibbitt told board members at a regular meeting June 9 the attorney general signed a settlement agreement that included several issues. One of them concerned use of the trust fund.

Signed by all five board members, the agreement includes the statement, “the state represents and agrees that it shall not seek any relief relative to (the Cannelton School Corp.) using current or future principal or income from the Dorothy von Solbrig Trust for the payment of (corporation) expenses, including the payment of (corporation) state and/or federal taxes.”

Translated into everyday language, that seems to say the state won’t punish the school system if it uses the money for other purposes. But Bryan Corbin, public information officer in Zoeller’s office, told the News last week the attorney general’s office “has not issued any ruling – that is an incorrect characterization of our role.” Likening it to one as collection agent for the State Board of Accounts, he said the attorney general’s office did not “authorize” the school board to do anything.

Even if an appropriate authority said it was OK, the money was designated for a particular purpose, which the school board should continue to honor.

We question the board’s approval of the spending unanimously and without discussion. We find it difficult to believe none of the board members wondered if redirecting the money was the right thing to do. We commend Beard for her previous attempts to resist unauthorized spending from the fund – detailed in today’s news report – but wonder why she didn’t speak up in this case. Even if they had each given careful thought to the issue before voting to approve the spending, they should have explained how they came to their decision.

We’d like to note that we feel the school board owes nothing in the way of explanation to the News. They are accountable to the public, however, and they can fulfill that responsibility by simply being open and honest about reasons for their actions. We suggest they follow an example set by others, such as the county commissioners, who often go out of their way to explain the thinking behind actions whose purposes may not be obvious.

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