Superintendent cuts interview short when asked about pulling ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
The State Auditor’s Office is investigating the Biloxi School District over alleged fraudulent activity involving personnel and the child nutrition program, though details are not being released.
The investigation involves a whistleblower’s complaints of unethical, illegal activities that she says have been going on for a few years, according to documents obtained by the Sun Herald.
The whistleblower, Victoria Moon Conway, says she was intimidated and harassed at work after the Biloxi School Board turned over a list of complaints to school district officials. The board gave the information “to the perpetrators,” which put “a big red arrow pointing at me and I have had to suffer every day since then,” she wrote in a letter to the school board dated Nov. 13.
The list of complaints contained information only she, her boss and the director of Chartwells Schools Dining Services would have known about, Conway said. Chartwells provides meals for the school district’s breakfast and lunch programs.
Conway has been the administrative assistant for the district’s child nutrition program for more than 10 years. Child nutrition programs operate with federal funds.
The allegations surfaced after Conway’s mother shared concerns with the School Board of suspicious activity, Conway said. Her mother has been with the school district for 36 years.
Superintendent Arthur McMillan and Personnel Director David Nichols could not be reached for comment Monday, but the school district confirmed the investigation to the Sun Herald in a written statement on Monday.
Conway says she was shunned by her school district supervisor and the management at Chartwells after the school board received a list of complaints and gave them to district officials. Conway wrote that she was “forced” to identify herself as a whistleblower for her own protection.
“I know that I am at risk of retaliation every day when I come to work,” she said in the letter.
A new policy
The school board confirmed the investigation of “a personnel matter” in a Nov. 13 memo to administrative employees. The school board met that day, and that’s the day Conway dated her letter to the school board.
The memo set forth a whistleblower policy with a warning that any employee who intimidates or harasses another will be subject to an independent investigation.
The district did not have a whistleblower policy previously, but there is a state-mandated general policy regarding whistleblowers, school district spokeswoman Jennifer Pyron said.
The memo also named Nichols as the point of contact for “any and all requests” for information and documents, advising administrators to notify Nichols if they are contacted by the State Auditor’s Office or anyone else.
“Do not take it upon yourself to locate for and/or provide information related to this investigation to anyone outside of the district,” the memo said.
“This will allow the district to preserve evidence, ensure confidentiality is maintained when necessary and to use district resources efficiently and wisely.”
The school board first called a meeting Oct. 24 to discuss a proposed whistleblower policy and a personnel matter, its online agenda shows. The board discussed “classified personnel matters” and “certified personnel matters” in a closed session in its Nov. 13 meeting.
“The district plans to comply with the requests of the State Auditor’s Office in an expeditious manner and wishes to do so in the most efficient and consistent way possible, while also ensuring the district meets its obligations to our students and Indian Nation,” the school board memo said.
The school district released this statement Monday:
“The District is aware of an ongoing investigation by the State Auditor’s office and is cooperating with the Auditor’s investigation. Last week the Board sent a memo to Administration employees outlining the process for providing documents and information to the Auditor’s office while also managing employee resources and the needs of the District to be able to conduct its work. Prior to releasing the memo to Administration employees, it was given to the Auditor’s office to ensure they did not have any objections to its content. The Auditor’s office did not have any objections to the memo. Throughout this process, the District will continue to work hard for all of its students.”
The State Auditor’s Office verifies that money given to local and state governments is spent in a legal and efficient manner and for their intended purpose, spokesman Logan Reeves said.
“Our policy is not to discuss any pending investigation or what protocol they have decided to follow,” Reeves said.
However, Reeves said it doesn’t matter where information comes from.
“We will take information from anyone who will give it to us,” Reeves said. “We take very seriously any allegation of public fraud, regardless of who gives us the information.”