Hempstead school board trustee David Gates at a board meeting...

Hempstead school board trustee David Gates at a board meeting on April 16. Credit: Johnny Milano

The Hempstead school board has extended its contract with Plante Moran LLC, the company it hired last year to conduct a forensic audit of the district’s finances, and increased payment to the firm by an additional $100,000.

“It is clear that none of us stand to gain or lose anything by this Plante Moran investigation,” trustee David Gates said at the meeting Thursday. “As a matter of fact, when it is indeed completed or concluded, we’re looking forward to the shadow or the overcast that has been over this district, of impropriety, to be removed. That is my desire; that is my wish.”

The five-member board’s unanimous vote on the amended agreement came about midnight, after a lengthy executive session during its regular monthly meeting.

As part of efforts to turn around the struggling 8,000-plus student system, the board last year approved an $85,000 contract with Plante Moran, a respected Michigan-based firm that conducted the forensic audit of the Detroit Public Schools, to audit its own books.

The investigation was put on hold in February after the firm used up the funds allocated, board president Maribel Touré said.

Subsequently, Plante Moran asked for an additional $135,000 to continue its investigation. But board members Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith expressed concern about that amount, and in March the three voted against an amendment that would have allocated the money. They asked the school district’s attorney to speak with the firm.

The district’s 2017-18 budget included $485,000 to launch a forensic investigation as part of efforts to address chronic troubles with fiscal operations, Touré has said. In 2014, the state comptroller’s office had issued a scathing audit that revealed flaws in the system’s financial operations and handling of its budget.

Jack Bierwirth, a veteran former school superintendent who is a state-designated special adviser to the district, has recommended regular reports and updates from the forensic auditor. Appointed in September by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to the position of “Distinguished Educator,” he was given a broad mandate to review and report back to Elia on the district’s operations, finances, curriculum and personnel.

Bierwirth’s report, released in January, said the board “must treat this audit with the urgency and importance it requires.”

The comptroller’s office in January of this year said it plans to again dispatch a team of auditors to examine the district’s books.

At a special meeting on Tuesday, the board went into executive session and had a video conference with the vice president of Plante Moran, Gates said Thursday.

During that meeting, Gates said many of the board members’ questions were answered “appropriately, and we felt comfortable and confident with moving forward with the Plante Moran investigation.”

Following the vote Thursday, Johnson said in an interview that he was glad the board could come to a unanimous agreement on the contract and that the audit will continue.

Touré said she was “happy because there are some things we need to clarify about how business has been conducted for a number of years.”

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