Kelley Rupert: Jon Rupert is not responsible for Highlands' fiscal crisis
Jon Rupert, former business manager for Highlands School District, was remembered as the “constant standard” after his passing last October. In a Tribune-Review article at the time, Highlands officials credited him “for the district’s good financial state” and said “he left them in a good position for the future.” The board president said “he had all the facts and figures, always. He could be counted on.”
Fast-forward to May 2018: The article “Highlands officials blame late business manager for fiscal crisis” said the district faulted Jon “for a budget crisis, causing it to consider a tax increase, employee furloughs and a reconfiguration of its schools” because he “had taken ‘significant amounts’ out of the district’s reserves to balance the district’s budget without the school board’s knowledge, and he had underestimated certain expenses.”
So what happened from October 2017 to May 2018? These budget crisis issues did not just occur over this seven-month period. Over the last several years, recommendations were made to raise taxes. In 2016-17, the district had a budget deficit of over $1 million. Fund reserves were used to offset that deficit.
In June 2017, the board and superintendent signed the budget and approved the 2017 audit and annual financial report. In 2017, leaders were well aware of the upcoming deficit and limited reserves of 2018, and they discussed downsizing the district. More recently, large amounts of money were spent even though district leaders were aware of the limited financial reserves.
It is standard practice for school districts to use fund reserves to cover daily expenses when they have a budget deficit. In addition, it is standard practice for any financial decisions to be approved by the board before they are implemented.
The Pennsylvania auditor general performs another critical audit. A May 2018 statement that appeared on the Business/Tax Office page on the Highlands School District website stated, “Highlands has received commendations from the state’s Auditor General for having six consecutive perfect state audits, which are extremely rare occurrences due to so many state requisites.”
Pennsylvania School Code makes the local school board responsible for conducting the financial affairs of the district. The preparation, adoption and execution of a district budget requires the approval of the school board, superintendent and business manager. In addition, not all fund balance savings can be legally used to meet certain obligations. The district legally must be aware of all financial transactions before they occur. So, to blame Jon Rupert for not fully informing the board of the money he was taking from the reserves and to accuse him of underestimating expenses (after 30 plus years on the job) is ludicrous and completely false.
A May 24, 2018, Tribune-Review article stated that Moody’s Investors Services , a credit rating, research, and risk analysis provider, lowered the district’s bond rating , and the credit rating could fall even further in the next one to two years . The article also said that, “The district is now borrowing $10.45 million and that according to loan documents one of the things the money will be used to pay for is an elevator at Grandview Upper Elementary.” The article mentioned that Moody’s stated the district’s financial position had been weakened because of spending growing faster than revenues. The district’s negative financial position has weakened in recent years due to structural imbalance as revenues have not kept up with rising pension, special education, and instructional costs.
Again, to allege that Jon caused the district’s financial crisis is disgraceful. After he found out about his illness, Jon continued to work and conduct district business like the dedicated, experienced, compassionate and honest professional he was. The district inaccurately claimed he was in a “diminished capacity,” insinuating that that is what led to his supposed “poor financial decisions.”
The financial crisis comes down to a lack of responsibility, accountability and respect. Let it be known that Jon Rupert had nothing to do with the 2018 budget, as he was on sick leave for almost all of 2017 until his death in October. During the spring of 2017, a very critical time for the budget process, there was an interim business manager on board.
It is reprehensible that his legacy has come under fire. He gave his heart and soul to the district. Officials took the cowardly way out and made him a scapegoat for those who either didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t want to be culpable for the financial realities of the district .
It is deeply troubling that those you put your trust in and expect to lead and govern could be so cavalier and heartless in their actions, comments, and accusations. In order to draw attention away from their mistakes, Highlands leaders blamed the one person who could not defend himself. How convenient for them. Even in his death, Jon managed to take a bullet for the district.
Highlands undeniably had no regard for the profound loss and immeasurable grief of Jon’s family. District officials know the truth. And, anyone who knew Jon in any capacity knows the truth, too. The outpouring of support that has been received is appreciated beyond measure. Jon would be grateful to those of you who stepped up and fought for his honor and integrity.
Jon had high standards and expectations as Highlands’ business manager. His absence will have an impact for many years. At the very least, Highlands School District, Jon deserved a far better send-off.
Kelley Rupert is Jon Rupert’s widow.