McHenry County Board chairman tells lawmakers he’s willing to answer questions on ROE’s failed audit

Six consecutive state audits have found several accounting errors at the McHenry County Regional Office of Education

After McHenry County Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn blamed county leaders for her office’s sixth failed state audit in a row earlier this month, McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler told state lawmakers he’s willing to answer questions himself.

Schermerhorn appeared in front of state lawmakers in Springfield on Sept. 1 to review the state’s fiscal 2019 audit of the office, which found five accounting and organizational errors, all of which also were present on the fiscal 2018 audit. Schermerhorn said some of the errors were because of a lack of cooperation with the county, prompting state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, to suggest that Buehler be the one to answer questions instead of Schermerhorn.

Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, submitted a letter Friday to Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino and members of the Legislative Audit Commission agreeing to answer any questions they have about the ROE. He also sent them a timeline detailing the ROE’s accounting history and work with county officials.

“I also understand that members of the Legislative Audit Commission requested my presence at their next meeting to further explore the circumstances surrounding the Fiscal Year 2019 Financial Audit. ... I would be pleased to appear before the Commission to present this timeline and answer any questions you might have,” Buehler wrote.

Buehler took office at the end of 2020 and was not in office during fiscal 2019, which lawmakers have suggested he address. Noting his recent election, Buehler requested in his letter that he bring with him the finance committee’s chairman, the county administrator, the chief financial officer and the county auditor “to provide a more thorough and complete history of out relationship with the McHenry County Regional Office of Education.”

The timeline submitted by Buehler details a history of audit failures since 2015 and the work undertaken to rectify the mistakes identified. The timeline also reveals the latest internal audit completed by McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi in July found 27 errors.

Among the 27 findings were missteps on balancing accounts, the ROE’s internal organizational structure, and proper documentation of expenses. In several instances, Teresi recommends Schermerhorn centralize the office’s five bank accounts to better track income and spending, to which Schermerhorn responded in the audit report by saying “centralization is not needed to comply” and blames the county for not helping the ROE.

Schermerhorn told state lawmakers that the office losing their accountant in 2018 has been the a main cause of the poor audit performances, which have also included submitting required documents later than deadlines required by the state.

The office’s failed audits go as far back as 2014 prior to the County Board terminating the office’s accountant position, however.

“The decision of our County Board was to accept and perform our auditing responsibility,” Schermerhorn told lawmakers. “Consequently, the County Board has put my office through multiple debacles.”

Schermerhorn did not respond to questions for this story, but told state lawmakers she takes final responsibility for the audits as the superintendent.

According to the timeline, the county has provided resources to the ROE to help with accounting since 2018 when the County Board decided to terminate the ROE’s accountant position, including paying for accountants. Currently, the Boone and Winnebago county ROE finance director is being paid by McHenry County to help with the McHenry County ROE’s accounting.

The McHenry ROE also hired their own part-time accountant in February 2020 and the County Board approved funding for the ROE to hire an outside accountant to help address findings in state audits, according to the timeline.

“This funding has been made available in [the] ROE’s General Fund Budget since Fiscal Year 2020 and every fiscal year thereafter,” according to the timeline. “It was [the] ROE superintendent’s decision on who to hire as the accounting firm.”

County officials have had several meetings with the ROE over the past two years to address findings in the audits, including better practices for tracking budgets and closing bank accounts. The most recent meeting was on Sept. 2, the day after Schermerhorn testified in Springfield, to discuss the county’s accounting role for the ROE.

Buehler told the Northwest Herald he was not aware Schermerhorn had been in Springfield to appear in front of lawmakers.

The McHenry ROE is one of 35 in Illinois that work with the state and local school districts. Each superintendent is elected voters. The McHenry County ROE has several accounts that can be audited by the county, but other accounts fall under the state’s review. The McHenry County Board is able to provide support to the ROE, however, the ROE has a degree of autonomy from the county. Most of Illinois’ ROE’s are in multiple counties where a single County Board cannot have control over the office.

At Thursday’s Finance and Audit Committee meeting, County Board members expressed anger at how Schermerhorn portrayed the County Board to lawmakers.

Board Member Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, said the county has done as much as they can within its power of oversight of the ROE, but the office is not performing like it should.

“The county has offered advice many time, and it’s been refused,” Wegener said.

“This is an elected official with no oversight,” she said.

Jeff Thorsen, R-Crystal Lake, expressed concern about the environment being ripe for fraud, although Schermerhorn told lawmakers she was not aware of any instances of fraud.

“I’ve seen stuff like this happen before where you want to put off the other question, but why is it so okay? Why are we not having an opportunity to answer these audits and develop a plan. This has been going on for years and I’m very concerned and I wonder what our responsibility is as the county board, in particular as a committee, is there something that we should be looking deeper into?” Thorsen said.

The committee’s chairman, Mike Skala, R-Huntley, said Schermerhorn’s testimony to lawmakers was “misleading” about the county’s responsibilities with the ROE.

“It was portrayed in the meeting that we were the bullies,” he said.

It is up to the members of the Legislative Audit Commission, which is made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats from the state House and Senate, if they want to hear from Buehler and county officials. State lawmakers also can take legislative action to address the ROE’s situation.