Some Bibb school board members had suspicions about violations

jmink@macon.comMarch 1, 2014 

Current and former Bibb County school board members offer various explanations for how former Superintendent Romain Dallemand was able to repeatedly violate board policy for significant purchases, costing the district millions of dollars.

From July to December 2012, Dallemand ordered more than $26 million in technology equipment and services without the required board approval, according to an audit presented to board members last week. In several cases, the school board approved the contracts months after the orders were made. At the time, the superintendent was not authorized to spend more than $500,000 without board approval.

One former board member claims some members had suspicions at the time, but they could not convince others members to side with them.

Other board members said they were unaware of Dallemand’s actions. In some cases, the board did not know Dallemand had already purchased items when they voted on them. In other cases, attorneys advised the board to ratify the contracts, some board members said.

“When he put a contract out, we didn’t know. If he came to us later, it was as if it was the first time it was being discussed,” board member Lynn Farmer said. “We didn’t know things were already out, being worked on.”

Dallemand was long gone when the board discovered that “we were dealing with contracts that had not been properly executed,” Farmer said. “We did go back, on the advice of attorneys, and ratify some contracts.”

Attempts to reach the board attorney were not successful Friday. Another attorney, who also works with the board, declined to comment until after reading the full audit.

The audit lists one case in which Dallemand issued a $1 million purchase order for technology consulting services, but the district actually ended up paying $1.2 million because work continued to be done without a contract. The company sought a higher payment. The $1.2 million was a negotiated settlement.

Similarly, board President Susan Sipe said the board approved several of Dallemand’s purchases after they were made because “we were following the advice of our attorneys.”

Accountant Miller Edwards, who presented the audit to the board on Thursday, said every purchase order should have been discussed and approved by the school board before being issued.

“These (policies) are there for a reason, to provide control,” he told board members. “You are the ultimate internal control.”

Dallemand left the school system a year ago after the board bought out his contract for $350,000, plus benefits. Asked why Dallemand was not fired outright based on the repeated policy violations, both Sipe and Farmer declined comment.

Former school board member Gary Bechtel, now a Macon-Bibb County commissioner, said Dallemand was not fired because it would have taken at least five of the eight board members to vote for a termination and “you weren’t going to get five people to vote for that.”

Also, because Dallemand was under contract, there would have been some type of settlement anyway, and a superintendent also has certain appeal rights, said Bechtel, who was on the board at the time of the violations cited in the audit.

Bechtel says some board members, including himself, had suspicions about Dallemand’s purchasing habits, but others would not listen, he said.

“You had five board members who gave him carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do, and he took advantage of it,” Bechtel said. “We were screaming at the top of our lungs that this stuff was going on, to no avail. ... I hate that this much money was wasted, taxpayer money.”

Other current and former board members could not be reached Friday.

Most of the funds spent came from sales tax proceeds. Some of the equipment purchased was unusable or it wasn’t used at all.

For example, Dallemand spent about $3.8 million on 15,000 virtual desktop devices, and now about 14,800 of those are sitting in a Bibb County school warehouse. Additionally, a nearly $3.2 million purchase order was issued for inefficient financial software without input from the district’s finance employees, the audit said.

The 15,000 virtual desktops explained.

“The government watchdog world is just completely shocked at how anyone can have unchecked access to spending those kinds of funds without anyone’s knowledge,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “How in the world did he get away with it? And secondly, how could he justify doing so?”

“Taxpayers should be up in arms,” Perry said. “One, a superintendent they entrusted with the job did this. And two, they didn’t have a school board that was paying better attention and being better stewards.”

The board voted Thursday to explore options for investigating the policy violations. Board member Ella Carter argued against the investigation, saying the board’s priority now should be finding a new superintendent.

Interim Superintendent Steve Smith agreed, saying the board needs to move forward and having “a witch hunt” would only deter good superintendent candidates from applying for the job.

Other board members, however, argued that the issue needs to be fully resolved, saying that board members can’t put the matter behind them until they understand how the violations happened.

“For me, it’s a matter of accountability -- who did what and who knew?” Farmer said. “I didn’t know, and several board members said they didn’t know. To me, if you don’t know how it happened, how do you stop it from happening again?”

Contact writer Jenna Mink at 744-4331.

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