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Auditors: Herricks school district overspent on custodian OT

Fino Celano, the Herricks superintendent, responded that his

Fino Celano, the Herricks superintendent, responded that his district would follow the state's recommendations. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Herricks school district consistently overspent its budget for custodians' overtime pay — thousands of dollars in expenditures that in many cases may not have been necessary, state auditors concluded. 

The audit report from the state comptroller's office found that Herricks overspent by $192,608 during the 2015-16 school year, $138,456 in 2016-17 and $90,171 in 2017-18. Cost overruns might have been avoided in the case of nonemergency assignments and other work, had the district scheduled custodians' time more carefully, the report stated. 

The comptoller's office also rapped the North Bellmore district for failing to follow state law in using a competitive process, similar to bidding, in hiring an accounting firm to do its annual audit — a $74,000 cost item. State auditors found that the district did not use the bidding process, known as a request for proposals or RFP's, in obtaining some other professional services costing $437,732. 

District officials in both Herricks and North Bellmore said they would comply with state auditors' recommendations aimed at making their local operations more cost-effective.

The comptroller's office, in addition to its state responsibilities, serves as a fiscal watchdog to the operations of local municipalities and school districts. The agency's regional office in Hauppauge handles auditing in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The 4,000-student Herricks district has 879 employees, and its budget totals $117.5 million for the 2019-20 school year.

State auditors reported that Herricks had no written policy or procedures to ensure that all overtime hours worked were approved in advance by district supervisors. Overtime generally is paid at the rate of time and one-half of employees' regular hourly pay on weekdays, and double time on Sundays. 

Auditors conducted a spot check of overtime paid to 10 custodians between July 2017 and October 2018, and found that payments totaled $82,187. Of that amount, $64,152 was for nonemergency assignments, or to compensate custodians who replaced absent co-workers. 

Overtime might have been reduced or avoided altogether, auditors said, "if officials could have scheduled employees' work hours to cover some nonemergency events, such as dance shows and Friday night recreation that were planned well in advance, and substitutes for those employees whose absences were preapproved."   

Fino Celano, the Herricks superintendent, said steps taken by the district so far included hiring per-diem substitutes to cover absent employees, a procedure that cut overtime spending.  Total overtime costs declined from $891,916 in 2014-15 , to $575,159 in 2018-19.

Celano added that his district would follow the state's recommendations "as we continue our efforts to ensure that best practices are implemented in all aspects of school district procedures and operations." 

North Bellmore, with 2,059 students, operates on a $57.4 million budget. 

State monitors said the district failed to follow a state mandate requiring bids every five years, as part of its procedure for hiring accounting firms responsible for independent audits. Monitors checked procedures used by the district in hiring 17 professional service providers including attorneys, and discovered that RFPs were not used in contracting with six of those professionals. 

Without competitive hiring, state auditors said, North Bellmore officials "cannot be sure that professional services are procured in the most prudent and economical manner."

Marie Testa, the North Bellmore superintendent, said her district took steps to ensure RFPs were used in future hiring. 

"The school district is committed to maintain its goal of fiscal responsibility and prudence in the expenditure of public funds," Testa's response letter stated.

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