Other Opinions

State Department of Education is fixing its accounting problems

By Felicia Gavin

Mississippi Department of Education

Felicia Gavin is the chief operations officer at the Mississippi Department of Education.
Felicia Gavin is the chief operations officer at the Mississippi Department of Education.

When Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, hired me to be the chief operations officer for the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) in February, she asked me to conduct a comprehensive review of the accounting and procurement offices at the department and recommend any necessary changes.

After a thorough review, I found the accounting practices were too lax and procedures were not clearly defined. The issues in accounting were exacerbated by the move to the Mississippi Accountability System for Government Information and Collaboration (MAGIC), which PEER’s Sept. 19 report stated had “operational deficiencies.”

However, the internal controls at the MDE needed to be revamped to prevent accounting errors and to strengthen protocols for contractual services. I have worked over the last several months to tighten controls and to raise the level of accountability in the agency’s accounting practices.

Based on 25 years of experience in both the public and private sectors, I know what needs to take place to maintain compliance with state and federal laws, while ensuring that we hold to the highest standards and expectations in stewarding taxpayer dollars. I outlined the significant changes that have taken place in operations at the MDE to the Mississippi State Board of Education (SBE) at its Oct. 19 meeting.

One of my first recommendations was to hire a compliance officer to ensure that all state and federal laws and regulations were being applied fully and consistently and that the agency followed professional standards and accepted business practices. The compliance officer, who began in May, is a Certified Public Accountant and is responsible for monitoring practices that will ensure the highest possible level of compliance.

The key areas of focus include implementing a Corrective Action Plan to address any audit findings, completing an internal control assessment, working with leadership and program offices to identify and monitor risks to the internal control system, performing random reviews of account reconciliations or documents to ensure funds are properly recorded, and working with the procurement and accounting staff to ensure compliance with the Mississippi Agency Accounting Policies and Procedures as outlined by the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

The MDE is committed to efficient procurement practices. In fact, under the SBE’s direction, the MDE has implemented a substantive policy regarding contract employees. We have eliminated the pool of service as a method of procurement. Key changes, which began July 1, include a request for application (RFA) for contracts between $5,000 and $75,000, and a RFA or Competitive Sealed Qualifications for contracts over $75,000.

All contracts over $50,000 still must be approved by the SBE, and all contracts in excess of $75,000 must be approved by Personal Service Contract Review Board.

In addition, we have developed a tool to assist SBE members in maintaining oversight of all contracts that exceed $5,000, including a detailed overview of each contract’s scope, amount and duration. This summary will be posted monthly following the SBE meetings on the MDE website for the public to view.

I’ve also made staff changes and reorganized the accounting office to establish clear lines of accountability. In May, I hired new accounting director, who has over 15 years of extensive accounting experience.

We requested approval from the State Personnel Board to establish a new Grants Management Department to provide oversight and accountability of all federal funds and management of all grants within the agency.

Several of the changes followed a fund-level financial audit and a compliance audit of selected federal programs for FY 2015-16. The audits, which were released in April, found significant deficiencies and material weaknesses in the MDE’s program administration and accounting practices during 2015-16. As the MDE has previously reported, the audits cited nine findings that centered on the MDE’s lack of internal controls and monitoring procedures.

The MDE took those findings seriously and made immediate changes. We also take seriously the reports of the PEER Committee and the Office of the State Auditor.

The MDE has cooperated fully with the PEER staff and the state auditor’s office, making MDE staff available for questions and information and providing requested documentation when available. We will continue to do so.

We are reviewing the recommendations from PEER, and we will make adjustments as necessary to further strengthen the changes we have already put in place to operate efficiently, effectively and with complete transparency.

Felicia Gavin, Ph.D., is the chief operations officer at the Mississippi Department of Education. She has worked in Mississippi in state government and in the private sector.