St. Paul school district fires finance chief who flagged improper spending

Superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools Joe Gothard has dismissed his finance director, Marie Schrul, whose candor about the district’s errors made her popular with watchdog groups but unpopular with other executives.

Schrul, 49, began working for the district as an accountant in 1998. In 2014, he was promoted to controller and subsequently chief financial officer. On the senior executive leadership team of Gothard, she most recently held the role of head of finance and business affairs, one of five positions.

The district announced an opportunity for a new post on August 24: executive head of financial services. On Monday, Gothard informed Schrul that she had not been selected for the role. On Wednesday, Gothard informed the staff that Tom Sager, director of business services for Mankato Area Public Schools, had been selected for the newly created position, which had only been available for five days.

Sager “will be important in moving our district ahead and simplifying internal procedures to highlight fair teaching and learning as our main priority,” Gothard said in the release. Sager will work with a new director of human resources. Marie Schrul’s years of service as CFO are acknowledged.

District spokeswoman Erica Wacker said Gothard was “not available to discuss personnel concerns” in response to a request for an interview on Wednesday.

In a short interview on Wednesday, Schrul stated that her termination was “very upsetting” and that it wasn’t because of “performance concerns.” After conferring with an attorney, she chose not to say anything further.

Laurie Niblick, a business office management assistant, rated Schrul as one of her top supervisors.

She remarked on Wednesday morning that it was “a complete smack in the face to us in the business office.” Simply said, a lot of people are in grief.

Niblick said that while district authorities never appeared to prioritize taking action, Schrul had expressed concerns about excessive expenditure on building projects and dubious spending by the nutrition department.

Gothard, according to Arleen Schilling, a close friend of Schrul who recently left her position as controller, disliked Schrul’s demand that the district adhere to state and federal standards while using public funds.

Schilling said that Marie’s insistence on compliance was the cause of her departure. She maintained the greatest ethical standards, thus her dismissal comes as a huge shock.

Joe Nathan described Schrul as “a paragon of candor, clarity, and integrity” when they both served on a now-disbanded budget advisory body together.

She made sure that committee members got access to the material since “there were certain things that some administrators were not keen to divulge,” he added.

Nathan remarked, referring to the Colborne Street location of the district’s headquarters office, “That did not always make her popular at 360.

Schrul and other district finance employees were at odds with then-Facilities Director Tom Parent over certain expensive school building projects he was pressing ahead without the required funds in place around the time Gothard was recruited as superintendent in 2017.

The facilities and finance divisions consistently lacked cooperation and communication, according to a consultant’s study that came later. Parent just received a promotion to executive director of operations and administration, whereas Schrul is still jobless.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the nutrition services department was intensively scrutinized by Schrul’s finance office for how it used federal monies.

Last year, the district was obliged to shift $1.9 million from its general budget to the food service fund to address erroneous expenditure, in part because of a special forensic accounting study started by the finance office. A portion of money was used to continue paying wages and benefits to hundreds of workers who ceased working after the schools closed in 2020.

More recently, Schrul has expressed concern about the mounting debt that Gothard’s school building program, which he inherited from Valeria Silva, is experiencing. She informed the school board in May that the district’s total unpaid debt is anticipated to increase to $860 million by 2026 from its current $393 million level, which would result in increased taxes for property owners.

Schilling said that Gothard made a mistake by replacing his finance chief now. The yearly audit is ongoing, and by September 30 the district must certify the property tax levy for the next year.

The Minnesota Department of Education often honored the St. Paul district under Schrul for timely and accurate financial reporting. Schilling doubts that will occur this year.

She said, “You don’t mend something that isn’t broken.” There are several issues in the district that need to be resolved at the moment. Not one of those things was finance.

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