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Published June 11 2010

Fargo School Board reviews spending policies after recent overages

A top Fargo administrator admitted Thursday he violated school district policy when purchasing software and should’ve communicated changes to the Fargo School Board.

In the past two years, about $2 million was spent by the Fargo School District for software and software-related expenses – costs board members said they weren’t aware of and didn’t directly approve.

“We probably weren’t in compliance (with policy),” said Dan Huffman, assistant superintendent of business services. “There’s no question we should’ve provided more information to the board … and (we) pledge to you we will do a better job in the future.”

In June 2008, the board approved spending $349,493 on Microsoft Dynamics GP software and $779,017 for related support services. The software upgrades were for financial data, human resources and payroll systems.

However, additional software during a second phase of the conversion was purchased, bumping the total related expenses to $2 million.

Board members say they never knew about the additional costs.

What’s more, they questioned overspending in 2008 and whether officials clearly communicated change orders.

Huffman has told them Some components were installed earlier than planned for convenience and efficiency purposes.

Plus, some additional expenses weren’t anticipated. For example, when Minneapolis-based Sunergi went out of business, the district had to spend an estimated $20,000 to transition the process to another company.

“I don’t have a problem with the products that were received,” board member Paul Meyers said. “I think the only question has been transparency.”

The board’s planning committee met Thursday to review a breakdown of all the software-related expenses as well as the district’s policies on financial management.

Huffman said he accepts full responsibility for not relaying changes to the board.

“Should I have done a better job communicating with the board? Damn right,” he said.

When the issue came up prior to Thursday, Huffman said he didn’t believe he did anything wrong. However, he said he’s confused by the school’s policy on spending.

“I pride myself on doing it right,” Huffman said Thursday. “But I’m confused what the board I work for wants.”

That’s why the board’s governance committee will now be asked to rewrite and revise three policies to better clarify when administrators need to get board approval before spending.

On June 22, the Fargo School Board also will be asked to approve a memo with the information presented to the planning committee on Thursday.

In the end, board member Jim Johnson said the ordeal will likely affect the annual evaluation Superintendent Rick Buresh will receive next year from his bosses, the school board.

However, whether others will be disciplined, Buresh wouldn’t speculate.

“Is anybody’s job in jeopardy? I don’t think so,” Buresh said, “but clearly changes need to happen.”

In fact, each month, the board’s planning committee may now have a greater review of the district’s expenses and revenues.

That greater transparency is what board member John Strand was looking for.

“I believe this will impact how we do business,” he said. “It’s still a pretty significant issue in my mind.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515