Not one of the six school bus drivers for Austin Area School District had proper clearances to transport children before the school year began, according to a state audit released on Thursday.
And the district went nearly seven years without hiring a superintendent, switching two employees back and forth each year between the positions of acting superintendent and high school principal. The state school code says an acting superintendent can only serve for a year, and that the district must work to fill the vacancy during that time.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released the audit on Thursday. When contacted for comment, Superintendent Kimberly Rees said only that district officials were meeting to discuss the matter next week, and would be able to provide a statement after that. She said the district has until Feb. 10 to respond to the audit.
Austin is one of the smallest school districts in the state, with 21 teachers, 4 support staff, two administrators and 207 students, the audit noted.
Regarding the issue with bus drivers, the auditors noted, “bus driver qualifications have been the subject of an audit finding for four consecutive audits covering a span of at least ten years. The district’s continued failure to provide legally mandated oversight of transportation services resulted in the district placing its students at potential risk of harm by not ensuring that contracted bus drivers were properly qualified and cleared to transport students.”
The audit stated that the district relied on the transportation contractor to determine driver eligibility as the district did not obtain, review or maintain required qualification and clearance documentation for each driver before they transported students, despite being required to do so by the state.
“We found that all six drivers were missing one or more of the required documentation,” the audit read.
Four were missing FBI clearance, two were missing state police clearance, one was missing Pennsylvania Child Abuse History clearance and all six were missing the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s arrest/conviction report and certification form, the audit read.
The district was notified of the deficiencies and contacted the contractor to obtain the required documentation. The contractor didn’t have it, and requested new clearances and forms. The auditor noted that as of Oct. 1, one driver was still missing the FBI clearance and two were missing the arrest/conviction report.
One driver was found by the auditors to have past criminal convictions, of which the district was unaware. Only after they were informed of the convictions, the district officials performed required searches and determined the person was eligible to be a driver, the auditor noted.
It was noted, too, that Austin had since revised its transportation policies with specific provisions relating to contractors and qualifications. The district also responded to the audit by telling the auditor general’s office they were assigning a new transportation director, are looking into a tracking software system to notify them when clearances are expiring, and are adding procedures to the district’s hiring policies for background check approvals.
The other issue identified by the auditors was the lack of a superintendent, which had been an issue in prior audits as well.
“The district employed acting superintendents and high school principals for more than six years without conducting a good faith effort to hire someone permanently,” the audit read. The two employees were shifted back and forth, serving a year as superintendent, then a year as high school principal, and then back to superintendent.
“When asked why the district failed to permanently fill the superintendent position, district officials indicated they had difficulty finding a qualified candidate to accept the position,” the audit read. “When we pressed for details on the search for a permanent superintendent, district officials did not produce any evidence of a search other than a job posting on the intermediate unit’s website.”
While this was identified as an issue, the auditor also mentioned that one of the two employees had been retired and collecting an annuity from the Public School Employees’ Retirement System during his full-time employment.
He had been approved to work under an emergency “shortage of personnel” exemption through the 2014-15 school year. The person worked until August 2018 without the district having written permission from PSERS, according to the audit. The PSERS agency asked for documentation that the district had been advertising for the position of superintendent since July 2014, along with results of the recruitment effort. Yet the audit noted that PSERS had no record that any documentation had been provided as requested.
The district’s response, provided in the audit report, denied that it did not have permission to employ the person and did not violate PSERS code. Further, district officials maintain they did use good faith efforts to hire a superintendent.
A link to the full audit is available at https://www.paauditor.gov/Media/Default/Reports/schAustinAreaSchoolDistrict121919.pdf