JTSD places business manager on leave; launches second investigation
The Jim Thorpe Area School District board of directors has placed the district’s business manager on leave and ordered an internal investigation into her office following a recent forensic review.
Lauren Kovac says she stands behind the work she has done as business manager, and believes she is the victim of a witch hunt.
“I look forward to the results of this investigation, and having it clear my name. I truly believe that there will be no findings that will be to the detriment to the district, and to my moral or professional character,” she said.
At a special meeting Tuesday night, the board voted to place Kovac on paid leave effective Sept. 11, while the district conducts an internal investigation into her performance and the procedures and processes of the business office. Kovac’s salary was $96,305 in 2018-19.
The board was in agreement about conducting the investigation, but not about putting Kovac on leave as it is completed.
Dennis McGinley, Clement McGinley and Michael Principe voted against the decision to place Kovac on leave. John Ciavarella was absent.
McGinley said that he has seen no proof that Kovac has done anything illegal, unethical or contrary to her responsibilities as district business manager.
“I haven’t seen that yet. But I do welcome another look from an auditor as well as another legal team, which will hopefully clear her name,” he said.
He added that the board has a responsibility to its taxpayers to ensure that district employees are not acting inappropriately.
Levin Legal Group PC and an accounting firm, EisnerAmper, will assist Superintendent John Rushefski in conducting the investigation.
The decision to investigate the business office comes after the board received the results of a 10-month, $15,000 forensic review of potential misuse of district credit cards by Kovac and former Superintendent Brian Gasper.
When resident Laura McArdle asked why that review wasn’t sufficient, Beard said it left the board with some unanswered questions. But he said the auditor, Brown Schultz Sheridan and Fritz of Camp Hill, believes its work is done.
“There’s a belief that the first one did not cover what all was requested to be looked at,” he said.
Board President Pearl Downs-Sheckler said the board has received invoices for the forensic review, but have not voted to pay them.
Asked if she still favored releasing the forensic review to the public, Sheckler deferred to the district’s response to recent right to know requests for the report. In their responses the district said the report is not subject to the state’s open records law.
“I have no comment on that. I have a lot of comment, but I’ll keep it quiet,” she said.
Beard said the exact scope of the new audit is to be determined. He said that like with Brown Schultz Sheridan and Fritz’s report, any release of the second report would have to be approved by Levin Legal Group.
The board’s letter of agreement with Levin Legal Group approved Tuesday night was not available. Beard said he would ask the firm’s permission to release it. He stated that the Levin Legal Group will charge between $180-$200 per hour for its services, depending on whether the work is done by attorney Michael Ira Levin or one of his associates.
The board voted to approve an initial payment of $5,000 to EisnerAmper. The payment won’t be released until both sides come to an agreement on the scope of the audit, as well as the firm’s fees and the total amount the district will agree to pay for their services.
Records and files
In another vote Tuesday night, the board agreed to require all district employees to cooperate with the investigation, meet with Levin Legal Group when instructed, and provide any records or evidence that they request. The board ordered that Kovac and her staff are required to preserve all records and documents related to her performance. In addition, the board ordered a litigation hold on all records, documents, electronic files and folders that contain the business manager’s work and any of her communications.
The investigation is being conducted in accordance with the business manager’s contract, and the superintendent is required to officially notify Kovac via certified letter.
The board has agreed to contact the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials in hopes of retaining a substitute business manager to oversee the district business office while Kovac is on leave. They also voted to replace her as the board’s secretary, a decision which the board proposed before the forensic review was completed. School board member Gerald Strubinger was appointed to take over that role.
The board ordered a forensic review of the administrators’ credit card use after it was revealed that school board members flew first class to out of state conferences and held lunch meetings with Gasper at area restaurants. Gasper left the district in June after the board declined to renew his contract. The expenses were paid for with a district credit card taken out in Kovac’s name. The board regularly approved the expenses, but Kovac never actually had its authorization to apply for the card.
The residents who filed brought the expenses to the board’s attention, Cindy Lesisko-Henning and Paul Montemuro, said during Tuesday’s meeting that they were pleased with the decision to conduct an internal investigation.
“I just want to say thank you for doing this. I appreciate you for doing it, for taking it an extra step,” Henning said.