Tue | Dec 5, 2023

More red flags in new Merl Grove audit

Published:Monday | January 17, 2022 | 12:10 AM
Dr Marjorie Fullerton, the suspended principal of Merl Grove High.
An aerial view of Merl Grove High School in St Andrew. The school’s administration is in the throes of turmoil after the principal was suspended.

A second audit of the embattled Merl Grove High School has highlighted new concerns, including the overpayment of salary to the bursar and a breach of the ministry guidelines on the number of bank accounts held by the institution. The principal is...

A second audit of the embattled Merl Grove High School has highlighted new concerns, including the overpayment of salary to the bursar and a breach of the ministry guidelines on the number of bank accounts held by the institution.

The principal is also being pressed to explain millions of dollars in unaccounted-for funds.

In the latest audit, the ministry's team of auditors did an analysis of the payroll of the school from September 2020 to April 2021, which revealed that the bursar was overpaid salary totalling $289,832.64 for the period.

As at June 1, 2001, the bursar was appointed to the position of bursar EIGS/AS 5 and would have reached the maximum point of the salary scale in March 2008. The post was, however, reclassified with effect from April 1, 2016, to EIGS/BR 4.

It was noted that the bursar did not meet the reclassification qualification requirements and, therefore, should be acting at the minimum point of the EIGS/BR 4 scale with increments until she has attained the requisite qualification to be reappointed to the bursar post.

However, the report said that the officer was being paid at the maximum point of the EIGS/BR4 salary scale with two seniority allowances up to April 2021.

The education ministry's reclassification guidelines were not being adhered to.

Auditors claimed the bursar was paid salaries to which she was not entitled and that the officer was overpaid statutory deductions for the period.

The ministry recommended that the assistant bursar calculate the total overpayment for the period April 2016-April 2021 and submit a copy to the board and financial controller.

Steps should be taken to recover the amounts that were overpaid, the audit stated.

The report also confirmed findings from an earlier audit that found that revenue generated from applications for transfer of students amounting to $1.9 million, which was collected from 2017 to 2020, could not be accounted for.

The audit stated that the principal and previous acting vice-principal should give an account for all the funds that were received from transfers, with adequate evidence provided.

It recommended that the principal and former acting vice-principal be held liable for the funds that could not be found.

The Gleaner contacted Dr Marjorie Fullerton, the school's principal, who was suspended by the school board last year and is now facing disciplinary hearings. Fullerton said that she was unable to comment on the issue at this time.

Attempts were made to reach Dr Fullerton's attorney, Dr Delroy Beckford, but up to late Sunday, no response was forthcoming.

A reliable source told The Gleaner that Fullerton has stated in her written response to the school that the transfer programme had been approved by the previous school board.

Fullerton was suspended by the board on September 10, 2021, for reportedly going off on break for three weeks without having dialogue with her subordinates for the reopening of school in September last year.

There has also been a reported ongoing power struggle involving Fullerton and stakeholders loyal to her, on the one hand, and current acting principal Loretta Ricketts, who is said to have the backing of the chairman of the board, David Hall.

The informed source said that the transfer programme was initiated by Fullerton to boost the institution's productivity incentive without using Ministry of Education resources from subvention and cost-sharing.

The Gleaner understands that there were three coordinators of the programme, and parents were given a receipt from receipt books purchased using funds that did not belong to the institution specifically for the programme.

It is understood that money collected during the summer is processed using the same books.

The reliable source noted that the total amount of funds collected from the summer school and transfer forms were combined to pay staff summer school salaries and also to defray costs associated with the staff incentive trip. These actions, according to the source, were all approved by the previous school board.

The audit also suggested that there were funds that could not be accounted for in relation to major fundraising events held at the institution over the period 2017 to 2019.

These events included Sunday brunch, Grand Gala, and Glow-up social events. The report said that tickets for these events were generated by the school.

The event coordinators indicated that the tickets were designed and printed at the school using a pack of approximately 100-page card stocks for each event.

Based on their calculations, the auditors projected how much funds could have been collected for the three events for 100-card stocks.

“Based on the auditors' calculation of 100-card stocks of tickets printed and sold, approximately $7 million in revenue could have been generated by the school which may not have been accounted for,” the audit stated.

However, Fullerton has reportedly charged that the information the school bursar provided to the audit team was incorrect.

Fullerton is reported to have said in her written response that the 95th anniversary celebrations were not done as fundraising events but to improve students' social development and to build school culture.

The source told The Gleaner that the major events, including the Gala, were affected by inclement weather. It is understood that the auditorium was flooded owing to leaking roofs. However, payments had to be made to suppliers, including caterers.

The Gleaner saw a quote from Fullerton's response, which stated: “Payments were made from the school's income-generating points and approved by board/past board chairman, Pastor Anthony White. It is the bursar's responsibility to monitor spending against budget and report variances to the principal.”

Another issue that arose in the latest draft audit was that the school was operating five bank accounts as at August 2021 - in breach of the Ministry of Education's guidelines.

The ministry has instructed that there be three bank accounts for schools under the headings Subvention, Grants, and School Development for locally generated income.

In its recommendation, the ministry stated that the school board must ensure that only three bank accounts are utilised by the institution.

It stated that if there was the need to operate additional bank accounts, permission must be sought from the Accountant General's Department through the permanent secretary.

In a Gleaner interview on Sunday, the board chairman said that the application from Fullerton to the Supreme Court for an injunction to block the hearings of the Personnel Committee had failed.

Hall confirmed with The Gleaner that a second draft audit was done by the ministry.