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Accounting probe prompts firing, resignation at Haywood County Schools

Haywood County Schools is currently without a finance director, after long-time finance officer Larry Smith stepped down amid an investigation into accounting irregularities involving one of his employees.

Payroll Administrator Sheila Nix, who had been with the district for more than 20 years, was fired as part of the investigation into policy violations in the bookkeeping department. Smith, who had been with the school for 10 years, resigned.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said that while he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the open investigation, they’ve brought in an outside auditing firm to pore over the system’s financial records, scanning for further irregularities or signs of misuse.

While Nolte said they were certain some fairly major policy violations had occurred, they were, as yet, unclear about whether any laws were broken in the process. Local law enforcement and state officials, he said, are waiting on standby for the results of the audit.

Meanwhile, the school district is now left without someone to direct their finances, at a time when schools across the state are facing one of the toughest budget years on record — Gov. Beverly Perdue has warned schools to brace for 10 percent funding cuts, on top of the millions in cuts they’ve suffered in recent years — it’s a tough time to lose an experienced finance director.

However, Nolte said the support they’ve received from the community and other school districts in the region has been encouraging. Local citizens with experience in the field have offered their expertise, while other districts have said they can lend a hand and possibly a few staff until the dust settles and a new director is named.

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Nolte said Smith himself has even been in touch to ensure a smooth transition, though he wouldn’t comment on Smith’s exact reasons for parting ways with the school system.

“People resign for different reasons and when people resign it’s their reason, not ours. But he [Larry] is a good fellow and he has been very helpful to us in transitioning to a new finance director,” Nolte said.

While the investigation has no specific timeline, Nolte said he’s confident that suspected violations don’t extend outside the bookkeeping department. But when there are questions of taxpayer money, the best response, he said, is a quick one.

“There are some things where you can go, ‘Let’s look at that next week,’ but you don’t do that with taxpayer money,” said Nolte. “You look at it immediately.”

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