Board concedes ‘systemic failure’

Peggy Revell

Changes to policies and procedures over the handling of funds will ensure that nothing like the theft of more than $300,000 from Fort High should occur again, the Rainy River District School Board said following the sentencing last Thursday of former FFHS secretary Fawn Lindberg.
“Obviously, there were some shortcomings in terms of oversight, both at the school and right through the board office—and those things hopefully have now all been corrected,” noted board chair Michael Lewis.
A press release issued by the board called the theft a “systemic failure from the top down.”
While Lindberg didn’t have the authority to authorize or sign cheques, it was noted during last Thursday’s court proceedings that a practice had developed whereby blank cheques would be signed in advance by the principal and vice-principal, who did have signing authority.
From June, 2005 to October, 2007, Lindberg fed a gambling addiction by stealing $312,426.45, using some 146 cheques she had made out in her name or to “cash.”
The theft came to light in the fall of 2007 after a deficit of more than $175,000 was noticed by board administration and investigated.
“The board is glad that the whole process has now been concluded,” Lewis said of the ensuing legal procedure, which stretched until last week when Lindberg plead guilty and was handed an 18-month conditional sentence.
She also was ordered to community service hours and to pay back what she can of the stolen funds.
Comments and explanations from the board regarding details have been minimal—something Lewis said occurred because the board was advised legally that it should not comment until the trial and verdict had been concluded.
Since the discovery of the theft, the board has revised school-generated fund policies and procedures.
“What we wanted to make sure was that things are open and transparent, and things are now in a situation where this particular kind of thing couldn’t happen again,” Lewis stated.
This includes having hired an internal school auditor for a three-year period, commencing in the 2009/10 school year, to further develop and implement new guidelines and controls at the school level for school-generated funds.
This auditor goes out to the schools and works to do an internal audit of their school-generated funds.
The person also works with school staff to ensure the policy and procedure are in place, and to provide on-site training for schools in that process.
“Part of the position is to make sure those school-generated funds are tracked, and schools are tracked regularly,” noted Lewis.
“There’s a rotating schedule that’s been kept internally.”
Prior to this auditor being in place, internal audits were conducted—but less frequently and without the professional development component.
School cash online also has been implemented for such things as hot lunch fees, grad gown fees, and the “chem-free” grad—which allows parents to pay directly online for their children’s activities and minimizes the amount of cash that flows through the school office.
“We think that [these changes] should be effective—we certainly hope so,” said Lewis.
Lewis declined to comment over any changes in internal management and staffing following the discovery of the theft, saying these changes were the purview of the former board and he couldn’t specifically go into details concerning personnel.
Lewis, alongside the majority of trustees, were newly-elected to the board following the 2010 municipal election.
Besides the measures the RRDSB put in place, Lewis noted the Ministry of Education now requires every school board to have what’s known as an external audit committee, consisting of two board members, two external members of the community, as well as members who are working with several boards to assess the board’s risk in a variety of areas, including finances.
This was a province-wide initiative came into place at the beginning of this year, and not spurred by the Fort High theft.
Lewis also stressed that all the money which had been stolen from the school has been reclaimed through the Ontario School Board’s Insurance Exchange (OSBIE).
“Those funds were given to the school by individuals from the community, and we want to make sure that that money had been reclaimed,” he remarked.
As part of the restitution plan put together by Lindberg’s defence counsel, her pension plan will be accessed to repay as much as possible to the OSBIE.