HSE is seeking outside financial consulting. The CFO has questions about what that means

The Hamilton Southeastern School Board is seeking to hire a financial consulting firm to perform some duties alongside the district’s chief financial officer, although in-house finance staff are expressing concerns about the move.

Carmel-based Bondry Management Consultants is on the short list to take on that role but Hamilton Southeastern CFO Katy Dowling said she wants a better explanation for why they, or any consultant group, would be brought on when Dowling already does financial work for the district.

At a meeting of the board's finance committee earlier this week, Dowling shared additional concerns about Bondry’s work with the district, noting one of the company’s employees did paid election work for board member Suzanne Thomas.

Thomas said she was unaware that a current Bondry employee had helped with marketing for her campaign two years ago before he worked for the financial company.

“There is a piece of this where their employees have done work politically for people on the board,” Dowling said at the board’s finance committee meeting on Sept. 19. “That makes me really uncomfortable.”

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HSE school board members say they need outside financial advice to further explain the inside operations of the district’s financials.

Who is Bondry?

Board member Ben Orr said the move to hire a consultant is to help the board understand more complex financial topics, not to replace the current CFO.

“I am an insurance agent by the day,” Orr said. “I don't know public finances at all. I wanted somebody to help educate me.”

At that same finance meeting, Orr double-downed on his support for Dowling although she’s among a few top administrators whose contracts were not extended by the board in June. She could still be extended as her contract expires next June.

According to the proposed contract, Bondry would receive $4,000 monthly for up to six months on retainer. Dowling is paid about $153,000 annually.

Bondry's fee would be in addition to Dowling's salary.

Bondry, who has done some financial work for traditional public schools, seeks out all opportunities to share their services because they are a business, said Bondry’s founder and principal Oscar Gutierrez.

Bondry would be brought in to provide financial consulting services, including advice on financial goals and recommendations on the district’s financial management strategy among other things, according to Bondry's proposal.

A conflict?

According to Thomas’ campaign finance reports, Bondry Consulting’s Cris Dorman, director of communications, created some of Thomas' marketing materials during her 2020 school board election campaign.

Brandrenew, Dorman’s public relations agency, helped with Thomas’ website and other marketing materials. The company, an Indianapolis-based PR and marketing team, is declared as “Brand New” on the campaign finance form.

Thomas said she had no prior knowledge of this and learned of it from questions IndyStar asked about the relationship.

“Two and a half years ago, someone in my campaign recommended for him to do advertising work,” Thomas said. “I personally did not work with him.”

Lang, who said she was unaware of the connection between Thomas and Dorman, called it “irrelevant”.

Last month, Thomas and Gutierrez sat next to each other at an HSE finance committee meeting.

It happened by chance, Thomas said, although she went on to recommend Bondry as the board’s financial advisors. She did so because of their reputation, she added.

It was also a coincidence that Dorman performed this work before joining Bondry, Gutierrez wrote in a statement to IndyStar.

“The implications that Bondry was chosen as a finalist due to political contributions instead of professional expertise is factually incorrect,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez called it disappointing that Dowling would "discredit our qualifications" by implying that a staff member's "non-relevant work" before joining the firm posed a conflict.

Dowling also raised Bondry’s experience, or lack thereof, with traditional public schools beyond advising on bonds.

Manchester Community Schools hired Bondry to issue bonds but they did some work beyond that, Gutierrez said. No other traditional public school financing work was listed in Bondry’s recent transactions, according to their proposal.

Gutierrez previously served as the city of Fishers first controller and senior director of facility strategy and financing for The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education group that has developed a number of charter schools.

The school board did not seek out proposals from various financial groups through a formal process. Rather, they are pursuing possible consultants, like Bondry, directly. Indiana law allows them to contract services how they choose.

With the monetary expense being so small, Lang said an RFP was not needed because they could move to a month-to-month scenario at any point.

Orr said although he does not see $4,000 as a small amount of money, there’s a timeline to keep.

“If somebody is going to help us with this project before November 1,” Orr said, “They needed to start yesterday.”

What comes next?

The board has fast-approaching deadlines for HSE’s budget in addition to a referendum renewal on the Nov. 7 ballot that is needed to sustain more than $26 million of annual funding.

Board members have yet to vote on this matter. In fact, the finance committee has yet to send the question of hiring a consultant to the full board.

Bondry is still interested in the district’s business and won’t walk away from the chance to assist people who asked for their expertise, Gutierrez told IndyStar.

The board members' handling of the process, Dowling said, caught her by surprise. She first learned of the contract proposal when she saw it on a agenda and then Gutierrez attended a finance meeting.

“Whether it’s happenstance or not, the optics are not great,” Dowling said at the finance meeting. “(S)o I think the reaction would be normal to say, ‘Hold on a second.’”

Rachel Fradette is a suburban education reporter at IndyStar. Contact her at rfradette@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter at @Rachel_Fradette.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: HSE is seeking outside financial consulting; their CFO has questions