While the time covered in the critical Mason City Schools audit is over a longer period, 2014 was the pivotal year.
The district clumsily cut more than $2 million from its budget that year, and, at least in part truth, school board members and then-Superintendent Anita Micich blamed declining financial support from the Iowa Legislature.
But the pain, drama and questions didn't end when the final cuts were made in June 2014. Voters remembered, potential school board candidates pooled, reporters dug in.
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 m…
Four new board members, including Jodi Draper, were elected in September 2015.
Pressure on Micich increased throughout the school year. There were public signs of distrust in Micich's leadership, a dispute over a Chinese exchange program, and a reaudit of the district's expenses for the prior fiscal year.
In Spring 2016, the Globe Gazette requested electronic communication between board members, Micich and some administrators.
There were details on the exchange program, but also an email from Draper to state auditors. She worried that Micich could have approved funds via purchase order for two outgoing administrators that fell outside of their contracts and were completed without board approval.
Her hunch proved true.
MASON CITY | The Iowa Office of Auditor found $109,073 of improper disbursements by Mason City Community School District, according to documen…
The bombshell audit, released in late December 2018, identified more than $2.2 million in improper spending under Micich's leadership. About $100,000 of that total was identified in an earlier audit; questions raised in that report led to the larger review.
The upside is that the school board has improved its policies and processes. Superintendents in Mason City no longer have the ability to pass out bonuses without approval.
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The downside is that the audit does not mark the end of the issue.
The Department of Criminal Investigation is reviewing the findings. If it determines that any crimes were committed, the Cerro Gordo County Attorney's Office could pursue a criminal case.
Mike Penca, who served as interim superintendent after Micich's buyout, was not selected for the permanent position and later left the state. In 2016, he handed out pay bumps in a similar manner to his predecessor, reporting by the Globe Gazette found in July 2017.
There's no indication another state review is underway, but if the Micich process raised questions, this one should, as well.
State law requires annual, independent audits for public entities. Mason City hired firms to conduct those reviews. We're curious: why weren't these problems identified then?
MASON CITY — A pending state audit of Mason City School District finances may have begun after a school board member questioned how vacation p…
Micich is now a clinical assistant professor and fieldwork supervisor at Iowa State University's School of Education.
While fiscal management is just one part of public education administration, the actions outlined in the audit are – at the very least – a major ethical lapse. For now, she remains in "good standing" at the school, an ISU spokesperson told the Globe Gazette.
Finally, any ability to recoup those education funds will be a long, difficult process. But it should be done. Taxpayer money must go toward its intended purpose and within the framework of the law.
Mistrust in government is an age-old tradition, but don't confuse this bad batch of apples with all public servants and employees. A large majority do the work for and by the people, and they do it very well.
In this instance though, the public sensed bad governing five years ago. A free press shed light on the issues, and a new batch of school board members righted the district's wrongs.
From 2016: Mason City School Board emails shed light on Micich buyout
Series: Mason City School Board emails shed light on Micich buyout
MASON CITY — The handling of an exchange program for Chinese students played a key role in the decision to buy out Mason City Schools Superint…
MASON CITY — An ill-fated proposal for a Chinese student exchange program reinforced concerns about Mason City School District’s superintenden…
MASON CITY — Iowa has laws making most communications by government officials open to the public, but the use of personal email accounts and w…
MASON CITY — After initially seeking to terminate Superintendent Anita Micich’s contract, the Mason City School Board took a different route f…