DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. -- As jury selection was beginning Monday at the DeKalb County Courthouse in the racketeering and theft trial of a former chief operating officer for DeKalb County's school system and her ex-husband -- they are accused of corrupting the school system's bidding and contracting procedures for their own profit -- 11Alive's Jon Shirek sat down with Michael Thurmond, who has been DeKalb County's school superintendent for less than a year, to talk about safeguards from now on, and Thurmond made it clear that, "The buck stops with me."
Thurmond offered that five-word commitment for the 100,000 DeKalb County school children, plus their parents, who, according to prosecutors, were collectively robbed, cheated, scammed out of tens of millions of dollars -- by a few school-system insiders in the administration of then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis.
Lewis has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and he will testify against the others.
One of Michael Thurmond's most significant actions after he became superintendent in February, 2013, was hiring Michael Bell to be the school system's Chief Financial Officer, citing Bell's experience in government-finance, in DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta and at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
"We're working very hard to restore trust and integrity," Thurmond said. "One of my primary directives from the Board who hired me was to look at the entire operation, from top to bottom, to create better accountability, improve fiscal management, so that we could be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. We hired a new CFO who's very experienced, and I've been very impressed by the work that he's done up until this point."
Shirek: "What has your CFO done, then, to put in place controls that weren't in place when all this [corruption] supposedly was happening?"
Thurmond: "Well, first and foremost, leadership. We've improved our accounting ability by improving technology, we're looking at how we manage the money.... We have a management firm that's overseeing all of our ESPLOST capital projects. We follow it on a weekly, monthly basis."
Shirek: "What checks and balances are in place now that would prevent a small handful of people from scamming the system?"
Thurmond: "We've got a top-rate, experienced CFO, who watches on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, the intake and the outgo in terms of fiscal operations. We have committed ourselves to building a system that provides the checks and the balances necessary to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a way that's not just legal, but also ethical.... Our commitment is to run a system of fiscal operations that shows fidelity and honesty and integrity.... so that the citizens whose taxpayer dollars fund this operation will know that we are working to earn their trust, to rebuild integrity throughout the district, and to demonstrate that we're committed to running a top-flight operation.... But I'm the first to admit that the journey is not over. There's much work to be done. But we're up for the task.... to ensure that what happened, whatever it is that will be determined in court, will not happen again."
Shirek: "Who's watching your CFO?"
Thurmond: "I watch the CFO and the other 14,000 employees, the buck stops with me."
One of Thurmond's missions is to restore full accreditation for DeKalb schools in the next few months.
And a key requirement is that he has to prove to the accreditation agency that the system's financial house is in order.
On Monday, the superintendent's office emailed to 11Alive News a list of the major developments, so far, that Thurmond believes will show that "we're moving in the right direction, we're addressing the discrepancies and the shortcomings wherever they may exist, to restore and rebuild the fiscal operations of this district."
Instituted a mid-year FY2013 spending freeze.
Hired experienced Chief Financial Officer to lead fiscal reforms.
Developed, adopted and implementing a FY2014 balanced budget.
Eliminated the FY2012 all funds budget deficit ($13.9 Million).
Reduced FY2014 budget by $18.5 Million including $6 Million in legal fees.
Structured the FY2013 Monthly Financial Reports to the BOE on a GAAP basis.
Hired a Budget Manager and hiring a new Budget Analyst.
Purchased new School Based accounting software (Estimated rollout completion 7/1/2014).
Instituted rewrite of Accounting Standard Operating Procedures (Ongoing process).
Adopted procedures, policies and processes to address monitoring of internal controls.
Ended FY 2013 with DE046 General Fund Balance of $10.8 million.