Right on the money

Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Misty Clifton is the Cape Girardeau School District's new finance director. (Kit Doyle)

As a new year breaks, Cape Girardeau School District officials are all too ready to put their financial woes behind them. The district has begun to emerge from turmoil, recovering from a budgetary mess, deleterious audit and the eventual resignation of Brenda McCowan, director of finance.

In the center of it all is Misty Clifton, hired Nov. 5 as the district's new finance director. She knows she has a lot riding on her shoulders, but has quietly straightened the budget, sometimes working 14 to 16 hours a day, board members said.

Clifton has changed how finances are recorded, increased communication with board members and accelerated the budget planning process.

Within two weeks of being on the job, the board approved a budget computed by Clifton, after postponing the approval of McCowan's budget twice, which was calculated based on an incorrect tax levy.

"The push wasn't to have it approved [at the Nov. 20 board meeting], but Misty knew we needed to have something in place, that being able to have a working budget was critical. She came in running," said Pat Fanger, interim superintendent.

Since then, board members said their confidence in the district's finances has risen, and they now think everything is in order.

"I'm very confident that things are under control. Misty has demonstrated knowledge and experience in budgeting. ... Every report we have received from her has been totally accurate," said board member Martha Hamilton.

The district's finances became publicly scrutinized when an audit for the year ending June 30 showed the district broke two state laws by spending more than was budgeted in two funds and by deficit budgeting in another. The district also had unrecorded transactions of nearly $2.5 million.

Furthering the districts problems was the discovery that an inaccurate calculation of the district's tax levy resulted in the district receiving $700,000 less than it could have.

Superintendent Dr. David Scala was removed by the board Nov. 19, and McCowan resigned, a move negotiated by lawyers to be effective March 1.

Clifton wasn't fully aware of the extent of the district's financial issues when she accepted the job, she said, but began by simply crunching numbers day in and out.

She made calls to the county collector, the state auditor and past directors of finance.

"She spent time in Jeff City talking to DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], and in St. Louis talking to L.J. Hart, who handles our bonds," said board president Dr. Steve Trautwein.

"I believe in getting as much advice from those much more knowledgeable and experienced," she explained.

Clifton already had experience in fund accounting and working with federal and state programs, but sought resources to understand the inner workings of a school district.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in accounting from Southeast Missouri State University in 1997, Clifton worked as a controller for two corporations in Illinois. She returned to Southeast as a grant accountant, also doing budget analysis, before being named a payroll manager. She works with tax clients on the side.

"It was Dr. Scala's recommendation that Misty be hired. The board acted on that recommendation," Trautwein said.

After calculating a working budget, Clifton moved on to developing a monthly revenue and expenditure analysis, so board members know at any time the amount of money available in a fund. She has also made the detail sheet of monthly expenditures easier to read and balance.

Previously, only a year-to-date fund balance was presented to board members each meeting, making it difficult for them to see how the monthly expenditures matched the budget.

"It gives them more of a comfort zone. They can tie the numbers out as easily as I can," she said.

Fanger said this transparency is necessary given previous issues.

"Because of the situation, we want to make sure to keep the communication open. We want to be upfront, because we have nothing to hide," Fanger said.

Clifton has already begun to prepare the budget for the next school year, which she hopes to have in place by July 1. The budget is due under state law by June 30, but Cape Girardeau's board usually adopts the previous year's budget, amending it when property tax revenue is determined in September.

Most surrounding districts use projections to approve a working budget before the school year, something Clifton hopes to do.

"That's the perfect scenario," she said.

Clifton has already begun to meet with principals to discuss their funding needs, so she can allocate department dollars appropriately, a change from last year.

"I think the principals are happy to have input as opposed to being told where their dollars will go," Fanger said.

"I feel very confident in Misty's abilities to lead us forward and be fiscally responsible," Fanger said.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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