A flood of accusations: Former maintenance director claims his career was cut short because he criticized school system’s flood-related spending practices
Ted Norman, former maintenance director of Haywood County Schools, claims he was the target of whistle-blower retaliation by the school system after repeatedly raising ethical concerns over the school’s handling of state and federal flood repair money.
Haywood County Schools suffered more than $3.3 million in damage two years ago when hurricane driven rains flooded the Pigeon River Valley in Canton and Clyde. Over the course of flood repairs, the school system double-billed the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the state for more than $300,000 in flood repairs. A state flood official said the double-billing appears to be an honest mistake, and Haywood County Schools are paying back the money.
In addition to the double billing, the school system billed the state for improvements that technically were not flood damage to the tune of several hundred thousand, according to a review of school, state and FEMA documents. School flood spending has been through four reviews by state and FEMA officials — a standard procedure — and none of them found any red flags, however.
Norman said he repeatedly objected to double-billing the state and FEMA for the same work. He also said he told school officials that some of the work went beyond the scope of flood repairs and did not qualify for aid. (See last week’s article at www.smokymountainnews.com.)
During this time, Norman was overlooked for a promotion and was told he would no longer be in charge of flood repairs. Then, in December 2005, Norman was forced to retire after being named in a criminal investigation instigated by the school system. The investigation revolved around an off-the-books spending account Norman established at Haywood Builders Supply for maintenance supplies.
Neither the State Bureau of Investigation nor Waynesville Police Department found evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Norman, but the incident effectively ended Norman’s career.
School Superintendent Anne Garrett and Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte cannot discuss details of the investigation. Confidentiality laws prohibit them from discussing any information relating to either former or current employees.
They maintain that school employees came forward with information on the off-the-books spending account. The school system was obligated to turn the matter over to investigators to determine whether any laws were broken.
Regardless of how the information came out, Norman claims school officials capitalized on the situation not only to get rid of him but also discredit him in case he ever went public with his concerns over misspent flood money.
Norman hired an attorney to advise him during the course of the investigation. The attorney told him to keep quiet during the investigation, but now that it is over, Norman is sharing his side of the story.
One of the Norman’s first moves when the investigation closed in July was to call the state officer in charge of flood relief money, Chris Crew, and tell him about the double billing. Norman made an anonymous call to Crew to the same effect in February. In May, Norman had called the FEMA officer in charge of flood repairs with the same message.
By the time Norman called for the third time in July, school officials had already written the state a letter to inform them of the double billing and offer to pay back what they owed. The letter was sent the same week the investigation on Norman was closed. Norman does not think the timing is a coincidence.
Norman actually went through two investigations. The first was conducted by an SBI agent who found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing based solely on interviews with Norman and Haywood Builders. Unsatisfied, the school board unanimously called for a second, more thorough investigation to be conducted by the Waynesville Police Department that would include interviews with school employees who brought the spending account to light. The school board maintained it was their duty and responsibility to investigate the potential misuse of school money.
“We are looking out for the assets of the school system. That was our concern,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said in April during the midst of the investigation.
Norman said he agrees the school board has a responsibility to be good stewards of school money and demand accountability.
“I firmly believe in accountability,” Norman said. “I am not against anybody doing an investigation into accountability.”
But the school system should have gathered the facts first before forcing Norman out of his job and tainting his career, he said.
Regardless of whether Norman was charged with criminal wrong doing in connection to the spending account, however, it could still be considered inappropriate and grounds for dismissal.
Conflict in the halls
Norman believes one person working behind the scenes to cheer on the investigation was Jim Griffin, the former principal of Central Haywood High School. Griffin was promoted to director of auxiliary services — a department head position over Norman’s turf — amidst flood repairs in early June 2005.
When Griffin was promoted, Norman wanted the job. Norman was intimately familiar with what it took to run the schools. Norman knew when the filters in the air conditioners needed changing, where the roof on Waynesville Middle School needed patching and how to fix the temperamental plumbing at Bethel Elementary. Norman came from the construction and maintenance industry as a licensed electrician and plumber.
But school officials wanted someone with a background in the classroom, which Griffin had. Griffin was in the job only a year, however. He left the school system last month for a principal job in Winston Salem.
Although Griffin was technically above Norman, Norman requested to report directly to Garrett. Twice, Norman saw his job duties siphoned off and given to Griffin, including flood repairs. Norman was often at odds with how Griffin ran the maintenance department.
For example, Norman had arranged a training course on air conditioning upkeep. The school system had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars installing air conditioners in recent years and needed to know how to fix them when they broke, Norman said.
The company that sold the air conditioners agreed to come to town and do a free training course. Maintenance staff from neighboring school systems planned to attend as well. When Griffin took over, he didn’t want to do the course, Norman said. The training class was switched from Haywood to a neighboring county and Haywood County schools staff didn’t go to it, Norman said.
“Why would you not take advantage of factory service training when you have that many pieces of equipment and the staff would benefit tremendously from it?” Norman said. “It was completely cost free.”
Norman also questioned Griffin’s fiscal decisions. For example, Norman typically shut off air conditioning at the schools over the summer. It saved money on the electric bill, and eliminated one change of the air conditioner filters, which cost roughly $7,000 and three weeks for two employees to change schoolwide.
Griffin did not shut down air conditioning at schools in the summer, however, causing the electricity bill to skyrocket. When Norman brought this to the school board’s attention, he said he was later reprimanded for going over the administration’s head.
Norman’s biggest conflicts with Griffin arose over flood repairs. The school board wanted Central Haywood High School and the Pisgah Stadium ready in time for the August 2005 school year. Norman was obsessed with following FEMA and state guidelines and wanted to do much of the work in-house to save money.
When school board members on the building and grounds committee wanted to hire contractors to get the work done quickly, Norman told them there was no money to pay contractors until flood reimbursements started rolling in. When they wanted to make extra improvements that went beyond flood repairs, Norman told them it wouldn’t qualify for flood aid and would come out of the school’s own coffers, which were empty at the time.
When Griffin took over, he quickly hired contractors and put them to work. In the process, however, he didn’t shop around for the best price on work to the extent that Norman did. Work orders did not clearly spell out what was expected of contractors. Projects ran over budget. And state and FEMA guidelines were not adhered to.
Norman was puzzled why Griffin was put in charge of flood repairs given the big learning curve for dealing with FEMA bureaucracy. Norman had spent countless hours navigating the system.
“Coming to work before six in the morning and going home late is how you familiarize yourself with it — living and breathing it from daylight to dark,” Norman said.
Norman wasn’t the only one caught up in the school investigation. John McCracken, former assistant superintendent, was also investigated after employees apparently miffed at him on a totally unrelated topic came forward with accusations. It started in November 2005 when McCracken saw a public notice in the paper for an equipment sale to get rid of things the school system no longer wanted or needed. Equipment ranged from trucks and construction tools to office furniture and kitchenware.
Every government arm occasionally off-loads stuff it no longer needs, from cop cars to filing cabinets. Usually, items are auctioned off to the highest bidder, giving everyone a fair shot at the items and bringing in maximum profit.
But Griffin opted for a different format. He assigned the unwanted items dollar values and gave employees the first crack at buying them. Griffin sold a dozen older cars and trucks to employees without giving the public a chance to bid on them.
McCracken, who had recently retired, didn’t think this was fair.
“My philosophy is that it was bought with public funds and it ought to be sold at auction or sealed bid to bring the highest price it will bring, and generate as much revenue as possible to do things for the students in the schools,” McCracken said.
A review of unwanted items sold by Griffin that November show quite a few bargains were had by school maintenance staff. At least one vehicle was later resold by an employee for a profit.
Maintenance staff aren’t the only ones who struck good deals on unwanted items prior to the official sale. Brad Allen, Griffin’s favored contractor for doing jobs for the school system, was also privy to early deals, buying two vehicles and construction tools three days before the sale opened to the general public. In March 2006, Griffin again gave Allen an exclusive on unwanted construction tools owned by the school system, selling him more than $3,000 in tools before the official sale for the equipment was opened to the public.
McCracken estimates the school lost $10,000 in the November 2005 sale as a result of not auctioning items off to the highest bidder, based on a review of the items that were sold and for how much.
McCracken said he doesn’t blame the maintenance staff. They simply knew a good deal when they saw one. In fact, McCracken got quite a deal himself at the sale. Griffin agreed to sell him a trailer for $20 that was worth at least $150, McCracken said.
“I don’t fault any employee for buying what they bought,” McCracken said. “They sold me a trailer for what I thought was a ridiculous price but I wasn’t going to turn them down.”
Nonetheless, McCracken’s very public complaints to the school board over the format of the sale likely didn’t sit well with Griffin or the maintenance staff — some of whom were at the school board meeting and heard McCracken’s complaints. It was likely the flashpoint that spurred the investigation.
Shortly after that meeting, accusations against McCracken and Norman by current employees had landed on Garrett’s desk. It is possible maintenance staff were offended by McCracken’s comments at the meeting, McCracken said. If McCracken was going to accuse them of bending the rules, perhaps it was high time to share other instances of rule bending, they thought.
The exact chain of events is not known, however. School officials cannot comment due to confidentiality laws that apply to current and former employees. Did employees march into Garrett’s office with their accusations of their own accord? Were they gossiping around the water cooler and were overhead by Griffin, who made the employees go to Garrett?
Long time coming
One of the accusations lobbed at McCracken during the investigation was over a used truck he bought for the school system from a family member.
The school system budgeted $5,000 to buy a used vehicle for the food service mechanic who travels between cafeterias. It was McCracken’s job to find one, but it proved to be a tough search. McCracken’s nephew owned a used car lot in Clyde and had a 1991 truck with low mileage for sale for $5,995.
“I asked him is there anyway you can reduce it to $5,000 so I can buy it for the school system,” McCracken said. “Since it is for the school system, he went ahead and sold it for that.”
McCracken said he was simply trying to get the best deal for the school system. His nephew, meanwhile, was doing the school system a favor by selling the car at a discount for a good cause. McCracken said this exchange hardly fell in the category of using public funds to enrich a family member.
Another accusation against McCracken was McCracken’s use of a school backhoe to do some personal yard work. McCracken, however, had let the school system borrow a dump truck for three weeks for free. A few hours with the school’s backhoe seemed like a legitimate quid pro quo to McCracken. The school system has since wirtten a formal policy prohibitting the use of school equipment, materials or supplies for personal use.
McCracken said another of the accusation againsts him was that he accepted a $1,000 kick back from a contractor in exchange for awarding him a contract. That was not true and completely unfounded, McCracken said. Investigators also found no merit to the accusation.
“The investigation did not find any school system money, materials or equipment was missing. The investigation did not find any individuals unlawfully benefited from any of the activities investigated,” according to a press release from the district attorney’s office when the investigation was closed.
The incidents involving McCracken were only side notes to the investigation, however. The main controversy involved an off-the-books spending account Norman set up at Haywood Builders Supply. On a few occasions, Norman had money left in the maintenance budget at the end of the fiscal year. If it wasn’t spent, the money would be treated like a surplus and go back into the school system’s general account.
Many government employees spend down their budgets as the end of the year approaches to avoid losing the money. Norman thought of a clever, if not exactly kosher, way to reserve the money for future maintenance needs. He deposited the money in a spending account at Haywood Builder’s Supply. It appeared as if the money had been spent there, but in reality, the maintenance department had a credit balance at the store to use when they needed it. The account roughly totaled $20,000 when school employees brought it to light.
The account was commonly referred to as a “dummy account” or “secret account” by school officials and the media. Norman objected to this portrayal.
“It was never a secret,” Norman said. “I talked about it openly.”
Norman said several maintenance employees knew about the spending account. When school officials questioned Norman about the account, he says he gave them invoices showing signatures of other maintenance employees who had purchased supplies and docked it from the account.
“At least a third of the maintenance department knew about it. When does it qualify as secret?” Norman said.
School officials said banking school money in an off-the-books account at a private business is unacceptable. School officials also condemned the practice of spending down budgets at the end of the year. Norman disagrees.
“Spending down was common practice at the school system among every department. Everybody does it,” Norman said. “End of the year records would reflect that.”
Norman said school administration encouraged principals to spend down as they approached the end of the fiscal year at principal’s meetings. Norman’s version of spending down was just a little different.
Danny Wingate, the owner of Haywood Builders Supply, was also caught up in the investigation. Pat Smathers, the attorney to the school board, accused Wingate of “wrongful activity” by setting up a credit balance and conspiring to commit fraud against the school system. Wingate, a donor to numerous school causes, didn’t see anything wrong with the school setting up a spending account for maintenance supplies.
At times, it appeared school board attorney Pat Smathers was the one calling the shots and pushing the investigation forward while Garrett, Nolte and the school board were caught in a runaway train.
“I really don’t understand the viciousness that was displayed in going after Mr. Wingate,” Norman said.
The infamous drywall
Wingate was accused of billing the school system for drywall that instead went to the home of a private individual, namely McCracken, during a home remodeling project. The drywall shown on the invoice was 5/8 of an inch thick. The school system repeatedly maintained that it did not use that size drywall. But it does.
“It’s used everywhere throughout all the schools,” Norman said.
A review of flood repair invoices reveals numerous purchases of 5/8-inch thick drywall used to replace drywall that had been gutted.
Meanwhile, McCracken cut a sample of drywall of the wall in his house to show investigators that it, in fact, was only a half-inch thick, the preferred dimension for residential settings.
“Anyone who wants to see that sample, I will be glad to show it to them,” McCracken said.
Both Norman and McCracken wanted to publicly commend the State Bureau of Investigation and Waynesville Police Department for their investigations. McCracken said that Waynesville Police Detective Ryan Singleton was “very professional” and thorough in conducting the investigation.
They said they also wanted to thank those who believed in them.
“I appreciate all the support the community has given me throughout this whole ordeal,” Norman said. “People meet you on the street and tell you ‘We’re behind you.’”
Neither McCracken nor Norman have been mentioned by name by the school system due to personnel confidentiality laws. Norman’s name was easy to deduce, however, given the timing of his resignation and his position as maintenance director making him the most obvious one to have set up an account at Haywood Builders. Norman’s name was therefore used by the media in reporting the story.
Although McCracken was not publicly named in the media, he said many in the community knew that he was the other target of the investigation and that he received similar comments of support.