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Audit: $2.2M in 'improper disbursements' involved administrator salaries at Mason City Schools

MASON CITY | The results of a state audit released Friday capped a sea change in leadership at Mason City Schools that had been building for more than four years.

Voters turned over board members during the past two elections, and those members ousted a superintendent and several senior managers, and requested the thorough and detailed state review.

The result: State Auditor Mary Mosiman's office found Mason City Schools handed out more than $2.2 million in "improper disbursements" from July 2009 through August 2017.

Former superintendent Anita Micich's salary and retirement benefits were targeted for more than $400,000, but a majority of the other financial missteps also fell under her direction and power.

Micich did not answer calls or reply to emails from the Globe Gazette on Friday.

In a prepared statement, School Board members said they requested the investigation based on the findings of an audit released in August 2017. That audit covered just one of the eight years while Micich was in Mason City.

The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation is looking into the disbursements. No criminal charges have been filed. 

Superintendent

From the audit's review of supporting documentation and inquiring to employees, including former CFO Ramona Jeffrey, Micich requested a total percentage increase for administrative salaries and then allocated the money to administrative personnel "at her discretion."

The report also found Micich received some $473,978 in improper salary and benefits during the time studied.

Wrapped up in that total is $171,998 of what the report calls "improper disbursements" for the separation agreement the School Board reached with Micich in June 2016.

That's according to Jeffrey, who worked as the district's finance director. She reportedly received $127,342 in improper salary and benefits from July 2009 until her retirement on July 1, 2015.

Jeffrey, who also could not be reached by phone Friday, was replaced by John Berg. Berg was found to have improperly received $72,219 until his exit from the district in June 2017. He also could not be reached for the comment Friday. 

Micich's last contract with the school district was supposed to go into June 2017 and differed from past contracts; the new board didn't want another rolling, three-year deal with her.

Raises

Some $1.3 million of that came in the form of what the report called "improper contract salary." That money was issued to 66 employees, which the report said "exceeded the authorized salary calculated using the percentage increases approved by the Board."

The remaining total was comprised of various "improper benefits."

Forty-four individuals received more than $1,000 in "improper salary and benefits," while 27 got more than $10,000. 

Per Mosiman's report, and according to board policy, the school board "has complete discretion to set the salaries of administrators" and it is "the responsibility of the board to set the salary and benefits of the administrators." Then, on an annual basis, the board was to review teacher and administrator salaries and benefits but, based on the report, the board never discussed individual administrator contracts "except for the superintendent."

Additionally, the board was found to have failed to perform independent reviews of payroll after percent increases were approved.

Final months

Micich's departure was approved by a 6-0 vote during a three-minute School Board meeting on May 11, 2016. 

Two of the six votes came from first-term board members Lorrie Lala and Brent Seaton, who had worked with Micich less than a year when Micich's exit was decided. Doug Campbell abstained from voting. 

At the time, one of the reasons cited for Micich's ouster was her alleged "insubordination" over how she handled an exchange program for Chinese students.

In March 2016, Micich sent a signed letter of intent on district stationery to Tom Pinkham, executive director of International Education Management Corp, to "set up a program to bring Chinese-born students to study at and graduate from North Iowa public high schools." That letter of intent was mailed out before the Mason City School Board could vote on the matter and less than a month later the board voted 6-1 on April 14 to discontinue involvement with the program due to concerns over legitimacy.

Jodi Draper, who is now the president of the Mason City School Board, said in an email at the time that "(Micich) did no research just said (Pinkham) came highly recommended ... if we would have just followed the leader where would our district be by next year in this mess of (his program)?"

Board members were vague throughout the final weeks of Micich's tenure, and most of the details and information about her exit was learned through open records requests by the Globe Gazette, as well as independently-obtained records excluded from the Globe's request. 

Holiday release

Micich, Jeffrey and Berg were just three of the individuals in the state auditor's report who the Globe Gazette contacted Friday.

T.J. Jumper, Randy Meyer, Hal Minear, Sue Deike, Jennifer Wilmarth, Jerry Siglin, Tom Novotney, Barb Wells and Julie Bigler were also all emailed or called for comment on the audit findings and did not respond on Friday.  

Because of the holidays, school isn't currently in session. Some of the people listed -- including Jumper, Minear and Novotney -- no longer work for the district. 

Disagreement

School officials took issue with some of the audit's conclusions.

The board's statement said the buyout was "appropriate based on the terms of the legally binding service contract with the superintendent and that no improper payments were made to the superintendent as part of the separation agreement."

In that same statement, the School Board also took offense with the state auditor including the names of non-administrative employees who were improperly paid and argued they were "not the focus of the investigation."

According to the board, these problems ceased after corrective actions were taken in response to the audit.

Still, the report included recommendations for how problems could be avoided in the future.

One such recommendation was that the board "should implement procedures to ensure salaries and benefits for administrative employees are calculated in accordance with the actions approved in the Board meeting minutes."

It went to say that independent reviews of salary increases should be made and that those reviews should be "documented by the signature or initials of the reviewer and the date of the review."

The report also suggested the board president should sign all contracts approved by the board and that use of electronic signatures should follow state law. 

Finally, the report urged the board to "exercise due care" when making any decisions that would affect the school district as a whole.

Everything you need to know about the Mason City Schools audit

Everything you need to know about the Mason City Schools audit

Local
Charles City mother of 2 requests help from Cheer Fund

MASON CITY | A Charles City family of three “trying to get by” is requesting some help from the Christmas Cheer Fund.

A 38-year-old single mother of two children younger than 16 said she’s “trying to make ends meet” after an abdominal surgery took her out of work.

“I just want to try and give them something they will enjoy on Christmas,” she wrote in her Cheer Fund application.

The woman said her children are struggling with mental illness, like depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The application states if awarded Cheer Fund assistance, she planned on purchasing toys and clothes for her children for Christmas, and if there was anything left over, something for herself.

Since the Cheer Fund began in 1927, more than $3 million has been raised to help about 2,700 North Iowa families.

This year’s goal is $125,000.

As of Wednesday, the Cheer Fund has received $113,135 in donations.

The annual drive has never failed to meet its fundraising goal, and only once was it met after the holiday season.

The Christmas Cheer Fund was established by Globe Gazette Publisher Lee Loomis in 1927 so every child could have a present on Christmas morning. In the years since it has come to mean a little help at Christmastime to people of all ages.

Donations may be dropped off or mailed to the Globe Gazette office, 300 N. Washington Ave., Mason City, IA 50402-0271.

Any remaining funds not distributed for the holidays will be given to local nonprofits. The Christmas Cheer Fund balance will return to $100 in January to maintain the checking account.

The deadline to apply for the Cheer Fund has passed. No new applications will be accepted.


Lee-wire
AP
Psychologists: Understanding racism key for nation

The nation's psychologists want us to talk about race. Not in the hushed confines of a therapist's office, but in classrooms, church basements and workplaces.

If that feels like a daunting task, don't worry. The mental health experts have launched a video series to get you started.

The first installment debuted online this year. In 18 minutes, it outlines the myriad ways that the stress of racial discrimination insinuates itself into the lives of people of color. It also lays out the toll of race-related stress on physical and mental health. By sharing stories from a variety of perspectives, the video aims to make people more open-minded and empathetic as they embark on these difficult but necessary discussions.

Future installments will drill down on the effects of stereotyping, implicit bias and the subtle forms of disrespect termed microaggressions.

None of these topics is controversial among psychologists, who have studied the manifestations of racial discrimination and are in no doubt of their existence and power.

But as race has taken a more central role in political and social discourse — on policing, college admissions, immigration and politically correct speech — the need to grapple with these ideas only grows.

"It's time," said University of British Columbia psychologist Toni Schmader, who has conducted widely cited studies on the power that prejudice and stereotypes exert over human health and behavior.

Schmader acknowledged that frank discussions of race stir up powerful emotions for almost everybody. "The key point," she said, "is that we shouldn't avoid that discomfort. ... We should try to understand those emotions and process them collectively."

Easy, perhaps, for psychologists to say. Researchers in the field have long explored the impact of adversity, social exclusion, bias and stereotypes on everything from depression risk and cardiovascular health to sleep quality, task persistence and working memory.

The video series is aimed not just at "well-intentioned white folks," said Tiffany Townsend, director of the American Psychological Association's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs. For persons of color who have been on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination, the videos may help identify feelings of stress and self-doubt, and recast them in a way that immunizes them against racism's toxic effects.

"It's not, 'What's wrong with me?' but 'What's going on in this broader context and how is it affecting me?'" Townsend said.

The series begins by casting the experience of minorities in 21st century America against the backdrop of slavery and the institutionalized racism that followed emancipation. Experts discuss the subtle and pernicious effects of feeling that one's family and physical well-being are controlled by forces that are indifferent at best and hostile at worst.

Take Jessica Jackson, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs' ambulatory care center in downtown Los Angeles. On her first day in a high school honors English class, her teacher took one look at her and insisted that she was in the wrong room. For the entire semester, Jackson said, the teacher gave her lower grades than her classmates, even on work completed as a group.

The humiliation has stayed with Jackson to this day.

"It left a stain on me," said Jackson, who is African-American. "In every academic setting, I need to prove that I need to be there."

Psychologist Thomas A. Parham, president of Cal State Dominguez Hills, explained how the persistent insults of racial injustice can make people want to seek refuge with members of their own group and eschew everyone else.

"It may allow me to be perceived by my colleagues in my workplace as being this hostile, angry, frustrated individual who nobody wants to be around," he said. "What they can't see is the pain and the anger."

And then, between the footage of white nationalist rallies and controversial police encounters, there is basketball superstar LeBron James, making it simple: "No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is — it's tough," he said after a vandal scrawled a racial slur on his Brentwood home.

In the best of times, frank conversations about racism are hard to start and likely to end with resentment, recrimination and defensiveness.

And by most accounts, these are not the best of times. In May, some 64 percent of Americans who participated in an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll said they consider racism a "major problem" in our society and politics, and 45 percent said they believe race relations in the United States are getting worse.

But respondents reported starkly different everyday experiences of racism depending on their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Four in 10 African Americans said they had been treated unfairly in a store or restaurant in the past month because of their race, and close to half said they had experienced racial discrimination in the workplace.

Among Latinos, a quarter said they had recently been subject to unfair treatment in a public place and more than one-third reported workplace discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity. For whites, 7 percent and 14 percent said they had experienced such discrimination.

To make matters worse, members of different groups diverge by wide margins on how powerfully racism has shaped American society. Fully 84 percent of African Americans said they believe white people benefit "a great deal" or "a fair amount" from societal advantages that black people do not enjoy, as did 71 percent of Latinos. Only 47 percent of whites shared that view.

So it is perhaps no surprise that nearly half of the respondents — 47 percent — said they rarely or never discuss race relations with family and friends.

The APA acknowledges that in groups where people of different backgrounds converge, "topics of race, discrimination, and privilege remain sensitive."