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Wahluke superintendent addresses audit findings

by GABRIEL DAVIS
Staff Writer | May 15, 2024 1:30 AM

MATTAWA — The Washington State Auditor’s Office released Thursday its audit report on Wahluke’s financial statements and federal awards from September 2022 through August 2023, which included findings for some of the district’s federal award procedures. 

Despite the procedural errors outlined in the report, Wahluke School District Superintendent Andy Harlow said the district is very satisfied with the audit, particularly with its lack of findings related to the district’s financial statements.

“Something that we asked the auditor … I said ‘Hey, in terms of this, this feels really good over the years, like maybe one of our best audits that I've ever seen as a principal or superintendent over the last 10 years,’” Harlow said. “And (her) comment was that she's been out here for the last 20 years, in some way involved in Wahluke audits, and this was one of the cleanest audits.”

The most significant finding in the report stated that the WSD did not correctly identify the “unmet need” requirement for students when the district used $260,000 of Emergency Connectivity Fund money to purchase laptops for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Could we have created a better system of finding the need? Absolutely. But … we’re 98% Free and Reduced Lunch. So we use that as our litmus test to how we get these computers out to kids,” Harlow said. “Well, what (SAO said) is you have to ask each kid. Because we didn't create a system where we asked each kid if they needed it, we were just going off if they were (on) Free or Reduced Lunch. We assumed, because that's what we base a lot of our decisions on.”

Harlow said there was little guidance from the federal programs and award granters on how to properly implement the funding during COVID-19.

“There was this rush to get things out to kids,” he said. “That's why we got these emergency dollars. The state has different metrics, a different threshold.”

The audit report also recognized this lack of guidance.

“The State Auditor’s Office is sympathetic to the significant challenges the District faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and deeply respects its commitment to student learning despite these challenges,” the report said. “The State Auditor’s Office knows that in many cases, governments across Washington received significant pandemic-era federal funds without also receiving clear guidance on how to use them.”

The other significant procedural finding reported an error in the WSD’s reimbursement request for American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (also known as ESSER III) expenses.

“Our audit found that the District requested reimbursement for $36,441 more than its expenses for its ESSER III award … The District moved expenses out of the program after requesting reimbursement and did not update its reimbursement request,” the report stated.

Harlow said the district believes it is unlikely it will have to cover either the $260,000 or the $36,000.

“The majority of districts that took these ESSER dollars are in the exact same situation. They aren’t having to pay back the money. So we're assuming and hoping that that precedent continues, because we didn't do anything wrong. We just took that $200,000 and we gave it to kids. The only thing we didn't do is ask if there was a specific need.”

If the district does end up having to pay anything, Harlow said it will likely just be a portion of the $36,000 expense.

“We'll continue to work with the federal folks to see what their next step is,” he said. “So we sent it up to them; I think we're just waiting for a response.”

Harlow said some of the procedural deficiencies identified in the report have already been fixed, alongside an increase in written policies in recent years.

“Yes, there were a couple of findings, like I said, procedural (findings), but we're actually celebrating where we're at,” Harlow said. “We think this is a huge victory for our finance department and our district as we put these procedures in place over the last couple of years.”

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.

    Wahluke School District Superintendent Andy Harlow said the district’s state audit was one of the cleanest in years.