Ely to state comptroller: Take a hike

What was I doing yesterday, the day before Thanksgiving? You might guess I was sharpening my carving

What was I doing yesterday, the day before Thanksgiving? You might guess I was sharpening my carving knife or rolling out my pie crust, but no. I was perusing the state comptroller’s audit of the Schenectady City School District and thoroughly enjoying myself into the bargain. That’s how easily entertained I am.

First I noticed that the comptroller, or his auditing team, found what the rest of us already suspected, namely that the generous overtime payments collected by the notorious Steve Raucci were documented by nothing but his own word so it would be impossible for an outsider to determine if they were legitimate.

Raucci, you remember, was the head of buildings and grounds who is accused of terrorizing his subordinates and is now in jail without bail awaiting trial.

He was paid $50,836 in overtime in the 2007-08 school year, on top of his base salary of about $70,000, and all he had to do was submit time sheets in his own writing declaring the hours he had worked. These were routinely initialed by the assistant superintendent for business, Michael San Angelo, who was “unable to verify the specified hours claimed were actually worked,” according to the audit, and who apparently didn’t make any effort to verify it either.

I have been told by several people who worked in building maintenance under Raucci that in fact he did not do the after-hours work that he claimed but rather they did it, work like checking on unnecessary electric usage, but of course I have no way of verifying anything either.

But the point is, this was no accident, nor was it merely sloppy administration, as some other practices uncovered by the comptroller were. This was part of a cozy arrangement that Raucci had with the Schenectady school board and adminstration.

He helped them pass their budgets, and he kept labor peace, as I have explained before, and they took care of him by giving him the misleading title of “head utility worker,” which allowed him both to avoid a Civil Service test and to get paid for working overtime. If he had held the title that matched his responsibilites, supervisor of buildings and grounds, he would been part of management and would not have been entitled to overtime.

So that’s one thing that’s interesting, the comptroller finding what we all suspected, that Raucci billed for overtime as he pleased, without anyone checking up on him. Sort of like being able to write his own paycheck every week.

The other thing that’s interesting is Superintendent Eric Ely’s response to the audit. The way it works is, the state comptroller sends a team to audit a school district or a town or whatever, the team nitpicks for all its worth, finding every little shortcoming it can find to put in a written report; and then the school or the town responds, saying thank you very much, we have already corrected most of the faults you pointed out and we’re planning to correct the others, though we respectfully disagree on one or two little matters.

You can find examples aplenty on the comptroller’s Web site. Look at the responses to similar audits of the Syracuse school district, the Binghamton school district, the Batavia school district.

“The district recognizes your findings and recommendations and will forward the appropriate corrective action plan” — Binghamton.

“We appreciate this opportunity to scrutinize our financial management practices and plan to improve them” — Batavia.

“We thank you for the time, effort, and constructive feedback … the district has put the necessary corrective actions in place” — Syracuse.

I’ve seen more of these audits and responses in my years than I care to remember, and they all follow the same pattern.

But then there’s Eric Ely of Schenectady — Mr. Belligerent, Mr. Defiant, Mr. Go-to-the-Devil. He deals with the state comptroller the same way he deals with Schenectady taxpayers when they vote down his budget. The same way he deals with the press when we ask for a copy of an investigative report on Steve Raucci.

It’s his M.O., you might say. Don’t yield an inch.

Did the comptroller find “poor oversight” and “weakness in controls” of the Schenectady school district’s payroll?

Ely responded that such a thing was “absurd” and “unwarranted.”

Did the comptroller specifically examine 54 payroll payments totaling $69,984 and find $2,373 worth of errors?

Ely’s responded that that was “unfounded.” He said the payroll is $67.5 million, so “$2,373 in alleged errors is not remarkable” (ignoring that the errors were in just $69,984 worth of payments, not in the entire payroll).

Did the comptroller point out that San Angelo could not verify Steve Raucci’s overtime hours?

Ely responded that too was “ill-founded” and “unreasonable,” and added, “There is no indication that the employee in question failed to perform duties for which overtime payments were made.” In other words, the comptroller couldn’t prove that Raucci didn’t work.

Did the comptroller say the district might have overpaid two departing administrators $10,605 because of unclear contract language?

Ely responded that “the parties to these agreements are in the better position to understand” them than the comptroller is.

Did the comptroller say San Angelo had failed to certify 11 out of 14 final payroll reports?

Ely responded that the comptroller’s position was “not supported by law or reason.”

Did the comptroller say people have access to the school district’s financial software who shouldn’t have it, creating the possibility of cheating?

Ely responded that that was a “false conclusion.”

And so on. Not a word of contrition, not a hint of future changes, not a perfunctory word of thanks for anyone’s time and effort. In other words, vintage Ely. If you don’t like it, shove it.

This is the same superintendent whose contract, in case you have forgotten, the Schenectady school board back in June saw fit to extend for another year even though it still had two years to run, just to protect him in case the school board members themselves get voted out of office. Their ace administrator.

Why, the comptroller said the school didn’t even hire an internal auditor as required by law until almost a year after the requirement went into effect, which would seem like a fairly routine matter. Ely had no response to that one.

You would never suspect any of this, by the way, if you were to attend a meeting of the school board. Listening to the board members and Ely and San Angelo congratulating themselves on the work they do, you would think everything is absolutely rosy.

It’s a curious situation, and the only thing that relieves my discouragement is the thought of the turkey and stuffing to come.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Categories: Opinion

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