STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Author Oscar Wilde wrote: “When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”
In a period of handwringing about budget cuts, it’s often forgotten that 14 years ago, the Durango School District was financially at sea. School board member Kristy Rodri recalled that the state of the district’s accounting was nightmarish. The books were in utter disarray; bills hadn’t been reconciled for years.
“The district could have gone broke if they continued to not know how much money they had in the bank,” said Carla Sue Hotter, the district’s assistant chief financial officer.
Fast forward to August 2012, when the Government Finance Officers Association – a nonprofit that serves more than 17,500 government finance professionals – awarded Laine Gibson, the district’s chief financial officer, a certificate honoring the district’s “excellence in financial accounting” – an award the district has won for six consecutive years.
“State auditors were just amazed at the turnaround,” said Hotter, grinning.
How Durango, once a financial blackguard, reformed its practices to become one of the best managed districts in the state is a remarkable story. According to Diane Doney, now chief operating officer for Littleton Public Schools, it begins shortly after she came on board as the district’s chief financial officer in 1998.
“It was just a mess,” Doney said. “The bank statements hadn’t been reconciled in five years. One of the first things I did was hire Carla in June of 1999. She was really the person on top of the details who was behind getting the accounts in order and earning back the community’s trust.”
“It was like giving birth,” said Hotter.
Durango had more than 3,600 accounts. To most people, the task of reconciling them might make a weekend of recreational dental work appear comparitively attractive.
Hotter simply said: “I love numbers, and I love puzzles, and reconciliation is like a giant puzzle with numbers.”
Incidentally, the walls of Hotter’s office are covered with completed puzzles.
Doney said Hotter’s tenacity, “spectacularly high standards” and knack for confrontation was indispensable in dealing with obstreperous bankers.
“It’s wonderful when you’re dealing with taxpayers’ money – you need someone with those qualities. I never worried that we weren’t getting the best deal,” Doney said.
The odd couple
If one were to pen a sitcom starring Hotter and Gibson, it could be called “The Determined Durangotang and the Calm Carpetbagger.”
Whereas Hotter’s family has been in Durango since the 1800s, Gibson – who has extensive experience in school finance – came here from Colorado Springs, when he was hired as the district’s CFO four years ago. (Hotter delights in reminding him he’s “not really from Durango.”)
Whereas Hotter is frank and intense, Gibson – despite growing up with eight siblings – does not relish negotiation. (Ironically, Rodri said negotiation is one of Gibson’s greatest strengths. “He’s very hands-on, and works with each of the individual principals on their budgets,” she said.)
Hotter said that despite their different temperaments, “I really enjoy working for him because he recognizes my abilities – I never miss a deadline – so he basically leaves me alone. And a lot of the recognition the district’s finances have received is because Laine knows exactly what’s going on and how precisely the state auditors want it reported.”
Indeed, board members’ praise for Gibson was effusive.
Jeff Schell, chairman of the school board, said Gibson had “provided the district with stability.”
Board member Joe Colgan cited plans for the board to link its budget to the Strategic Plan. “It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is.We’re very lucky to have him,” Colgan said.
Rodri lauded Gibson’s plan for overhauling the district’s budgeting process so principals will have to justify their budgets before they are allotted money.
Gibson has placed new “emphasis on transparency. Posting the district’s monthlies online, he has enabled the common person to understand complicated finances. And the awards he’s been getting are fantastic,” Rodri said.
Gibson demured: “The award is for the district’s finance department because of the great people in this department. They won it before I got here, and they’ll win it after I leave.”