Emails show Collick-Maresh rift over involving Thornton in IWCS deficit

Published 3:00 pm Friday, November 3, 2023

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Disagreement over whether to reprimand Isle of Wight County Schools Superintendent Theo Cramer wasn’t the only rift to emerge between School Board Chairman John Collick and Vice Chairman Jason Maresh in the wake of the school division ending its 2022-23 school year with a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars.

The two also split over whether to involve Cramer’s predecessor, retired Superintendent Jim Thornton, in efforts to resolve the financial crisis.

The day after Cramer disclosed the shortfall at an Aug. 10 School Board meeting, Maresh emailed all five Isle of Wight County supervisors, reiterating Cramer’s explanation for the deficit. Cramer had blamed overspending on transportation and substitute teacher wages, coupled with a nearly $945,000 reduction in state funding. 

Maresh, who prior to his Nov. 8, 2022, election to the School Board had been a vocal critic of Thornton, noted in his email to the supervisors that the 2022-23 budget had been developed “before Dr. Cramer was hired” in August of that year, and “before my time on this board,” alleging in the same email that Cramer had “inherited a hot mess.”

Cramer too had, in an Aug. 14 email, urged Collick and Maresh to “Remember, we inherited this problem.”

The Smithfield Times obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Supervisor Dick Grice, at the Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 17 meeting, told Collick he had “no confidence” in Cramer’s numbers, but would have been willing to vote in favor of approving Cramer’s request for more than $600,000 in additional county funds to eliminate the deficit, conditioned on the formation of what Grice termed a “review board” to independently verify Cramer’s explanation.

Collick told Grice at the same meeting that the “consensus” among the School Board was to wait until the division’s 2022-23 books are audited rather than agree to Grice’s plan. The supervisors, as a result, voted that same evening to fund only a fraction of the deficit, leaving the division still $438,506 in the red as of mid-September.

“To be clear, the only reason I objected to Mr. Grice’s proposal … was due to his demand to include Mr. Jim Thornton in the process,” Maresh wrote to Board of Supervisors Chairman William McCarty and Vice Chairman Joel Acree the day after the supervisors’ meeting. “It is my personal opinion that including Mr. Thornton in such a process, in any capacity, is inappropriate for a variety of reasons.”

Grice, speaking to the Times by phone on Oct. 24, confirmed he’d asked that Thornton “at least be called in.” Collick, in an Oct. 24 email to the Times, said he too had been in favor of involving Thornton in Grice’s proposed committee.

“The School Board members had different reasons for not wanting a local review board but I can only speak for myself,” Collick said. “I believed that the information Dr. Thornton could have provided would have been beneficial. If Dr. Thornton wasn’t going to be involved, I couldn’t support Dr. Cramer or (Deputy Superintendent Christopher) Coleman’s involvement since, in my opinion, any findings would have been one-sided and not accepted by the public.”

Thornton has disputed several of Cramer’s claims regarding the deficit, among them his explanation for the transportation department’s overspending.

The School Board had voted in early 2022 to raise the minimum pay for bus drivers and bus assistants to $20 per hour and $15 per hour, respectively, and to fund the raises for the then-remaining six months of the 2021-22 school year with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, money the division had received from a federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Cramer in August alleged Isle of Wight County Schools’ former chief financial officer, Steve Kepnes, had never identified a non-ESSER funding source to continue the raises into the 2022-23 school year. Kepnes and Thornton each disputed the allegation.

Collick then wrote to School Board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham on Sept. 12 seeking their input on slides Cramer had drafted with updated information on the deficit ahead of the board’s Sept. 14 meeting.

“As you may recall, someone mentioned it’s the fault of the previous administration,” Collick wrote to Tynes and Cunningham. “Well, that comment is completely false in my opinion; while there’s quite a few things that happened to put us in this situation, it’s definitely not the fault of any single individual.”

Collick’s email then warns of “liability issues if the public infers that Jim Thornton is to blame.”

At the Sept. 14 meeting, Chief Financial Officer Larisa Harris, for the first time, mentioned another factor that had contributed to the state funding shortfall.

Cramer and his staff had initially blamed the reduction on a 2% decrease in enrollment from the 5,568 students expected in September 2022, but acknowledged on Sept. 14 that an error on one of the division’s reports to the state was responsible for 60% of the funding loss. Specifically, the division had mistakenly certified to the state last year that it would give less than the 5% state-mandated teacher raise approved by the School Board. The error shorted the division half the $1.1 million in supplemental state funding Isle of Wight should have been eligible to receive for giving its teachers the full 5%.

“Both were avoidable mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless,” Collick told the Times by email on Oct. 25. “If either one didn’t happen, the deficit wouldn’t exist. In no way was Dr. Thornton responsible for any part of the shortfall, as far as I am concerned.”

Maresh, in a Nov. 1 email to the Times, cited the resignations of Kepnes and his immediate successor, Rachel Trollinger, among his reasons for not wanting Thornton on Grice’s proposed committee. Following Kepnes’ departure, Isle of Wight County Schools went roughly three months without a chief financial officer. Trollinger was hired in August 2022 and tendered her own resignation in October of that year, making several allegations of financial mismanagement during the public comment period at a Nov. 10, 2022, School Board meeting.

“Given the totality of this situation I struggle to hold Dr. Cramer directly accountable for the budget deficit,” Maresh told the Times. “As far as Thornton goes … I do not believe in coincidence, or at least not to the level found in this circumstance. In my opinion had Thornton not been allowed to retire early, and had Thornton not left IWCS without a CFO, chances are this would have ended differently.”