Eighteen years ago, Flagler Schools Superintendent Bill Delbrugge set up a school district bank account for the program that is now called the Flagler Youth Orchestra.
Sometime between then and now, as the district administration and its financial services staff turned over, the school district forgot it possessed that account — and therefore stopped auditing it, even though all district accounts are supposed to be audited annually.
Now the district is playing catchup, planning an audit of the account for this year and the previous three years.
But while the failure to audit the account annually was a school district error, the accusatory manner in which it’s been spoken about led the Youth Orchestra’s program director, Cheryl Tristam, to note there are people in the community who would take any opportunity to smear her husband — Pierre Tristam, the editor of the local news website FlaglerLive.com and the author of frequent opinion columns and news stories criticizing local elected officials, includingSchoolBoardmembers.
“There is a faction of people in this community who would discredit my husband any way they can,” Cheryl Tristam said.
Before the revelation that the district had lost track of the FYO account became public at a June 6 School Board meeting, the Observer received news tips suggesting that there were improprieties with the FYO account and stating that recent financial records showed that the account, for which Cheryl Tristam is a signer, had been making payments to FlaglerLive.
That accusation does not appear to be true: Although financial records obtained by the Observer show transactions between the FYO account and FlaglerLive, they are from FlaglerLive as income into the FYO account, not as expenses. The account labeled the transactions as FlaglerLive advertisements for the Youth Orchestra’s concert program pamphlets.
The fact that the FYO account is actually a school district bank account came to the attention of current school district staff in mid-May.
Flagler County School Board member Will Furry had posed a series of questions about the financial structure of the Flagler Youth Orchestra Strings Program to Cheryl Tristam during a workshop on May 16 as the board discussed renewing the district’s memorandum of understanding with the orchestra program.
I contacted Ms. Tristam and told her we needed to take oversight of this account. ... We’ve contacted our auditors. They recommended a 100% transactional audit ... a full-blown audit.” — PATTY WORMECK, Flagler Schools CFO
Furry and board member Christy Chong asked Cheryl Tristam about the tax status of the organization, what oversight the school district has over the program, what kind of entity the FYO is and where the money it raises goes.
Furry later said he was not satisfied with the answers.
“There’s a lot of questions I asked,” Furry said in a June 5 phone interview. “And maybe untruthful is too strong, but I don’t feel like I received accurate answers to my questions.”
So, Furry said, he asked the district for three years of financials on the program.
Cheryl Tristam made an error at the May 16 workshop: In response to one of Furry’s questions, she said the FYO’s bank account “was like a booster account.”
In fact, the account, established by Delbrugge 18 years ago in the name of Friends of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, is a Flagler Schools internal account, using the district’s Employment Identification Number.
Since nobody currently employed by Flagler Schools knew about it, the district is now employing its outside auditor to do a 100% transactional audit on the account over the past four years.
“I contacted Ms. Tristam and told her we needed to take oversight of this account,” Chief Financial Officer Patty Wormeck told the board at a Tuesday, June 6, workshop. “Keri (Whitmore, the district’s director of finance) and I went to close the account, but there are outstanding transactions. Now, Keri and I are the only signers on that account. We’ve contacted our auditors. They recommended a 100% transactional audit ... a full-blown audit.”
Tristam has been cooperating with the district. She provided records of the account.
On May 16, after Furry posed his questions to Cheryl Tristam at that afternoon’s School Board workshop, former School Board member Jill Woolbright submitted a public records request to the district for the account’s financials over the past three years.
The Flagler Youth Orchestra has been providing instruction and organizing concert performances for the past 18 years. This past year, 350 Flagler County students participated in the strings program, including 212 elementary school students. The participants formed five orchestras.
The district paid about $70,000 to cover most of the salaries for two full-time staff members — Tristam and Artistic Director Joe Corporon — and five part-time instructor/conductors. The FYO paid the remaining $18,290 for salaries and covered all other expenses through ticket sales, fundraising and advertising in the concert programs.
During the June 6 workshop, Furry asked if the records showed payments from the Flagler Youth Orchestra account to FlaglerLive.
District staff members initially, incorrectly, said yes. But Tristam messaged board members and School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin during the meeting, noting that all transactions involving the news site were deposits from FlaglerLive to the Youth Orchestra for advertisements in the Youth Orchestra’s programs.
The account’s records for the past three years showed this to be the case. In this past year, FlaglerLive bought two ads, totaling $375, on concert programs.
The FYO also advertises on FlaglerLive, but receives its ads on the website for free, Cheryl Tristam said.
When the FYO account was set up in 2005, Pierre Tristam was an editorial writer and columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. FlaglerLive was not founded until 2010.
His name was listed on the FYO account along with Cheryl Tristam’s and Delbrugge’s.
“Pierre and I went to the bank with Bill Delbrugge to set up the account. At that time, we were volunteers. That’s why both of our names were on the account,” Cheryl Tristam said in a phone interview after the June 6 workshop.
Delbrugge’s name was never taken off the account, she said. Neither was Pierre Tristam’s.
“The account was set up by the highest-ranking school district employee,” Cheryl Tristam said. “In 2006, the year ended with 150 kids (in the strings program). I was not anticipating that. I went to Bill Delbrugge and said, ‘This is a job. I need to be compensated.’ And I was hired as a (contract employee). At that point, I asked to have Pierre’s name removed from the account. As of yesterday, I learned it was still there.”
I would suggest an outside counsel to review the structure of this to be certain we are in compliance of corporate and tax law. This is really messy.” — WILL FURRY
The address on the account was the Tristams’ home address. Cheryl Tristam said she has always worked from home and does not have an office at Indian Trails Middle School, where the FYO students gather twice a week for classes.
“I’ve never had office space. Most of that time, we’re sharing band rooms, chorus rooms, recently the cafeteria,” she said.
Furry said he had received a lot of misleading answers at the previous workshop.
Aside from Cheryl Tristam saying the account “was like a booster account,” board members Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin had said, erroneously, that the account was being audited.
“I asked Ms. Tristam, ‘How did you get access to this account?’ And she said, the schools,” Furry said. “I found out she was the only signer on this account. Cheryl Tristam does not work for Flagler Schools.”
Tristam works for the district as a 1099 contractor, not as a full-time employee receiving benefits.
Furry proposed at the June 6 workshop that the district conduct a further investigation into the program after the audit, which Wormeck said is likely to be completed sometime in July.
“I would suggest an outside counsel to review the structure of this to be certain we are in compliance of corporate and tax law,” he said. “This is really messy.”
Because Friends of the Flagler Youth Orchestra is not an actual booster group, but just a name on a Flagler Schools account, the district’s annual memorandum of understanding with the FYO is “basically an MOU with ourself,” Furry said.
“Most people I’ve talked to thought it was a separate entity,” Furry said. “That’s concerning. We have a duty to make sure this structure is acceptable from a tax perspective. The way it looks to me, Cheryl Tristam is the sole proprietorship, because they’re raising the money. ... We have to tighten the screws.”
Cheryl Tristam said the account has actually been “on the district’s radar” for a considerable length of time.
“I would get an email each year for the reconciled balance on the account, so they were going to file a report,” she said.
Around 2014, she stopped receiving those emails, she said. But she thought that at that point the district was viewing the account’s statements online, because “it was their account.”
During the workshop, Pierre Tristam sent an email to the Observer and to news site AskFlagler, suggesting that Furry is using Cheryl Tristam “to get at me and FlaglerLive,” because of his articles denouncing Furry for his stand on School Board issues.
Furry said Pierre Tristam was deflecting.
”When you discover 15-plus years of unaudited accounts with two signers, he is turning away from a situation that he is a signer on an account that is going to his home address," Furry said.
In his email, Pierre Tristam said, “FlaglerLive was never the beneficiary of any advertising from FYO, nor payments. It was the reverse. FlaglerLive has routinely advertised in concert programs to support FYO, specifically paying FYO $975 since 2018.”
He went on to say he volunteered for the FYO “a lot in the early years” when he was still working for the News-Journal.
“I had no idea my name was on any accounts (I suspect Bill put it there: we worked closely in those days; it was requested to be removed in 2006), but I never signed anything,” Pierre Tristam wrote.
Cheryl Tristam said she suspects the audit will find no issues with the account because she has always kept detailed records, but she anticipates the auditors will want procedural changes.
She is concerned about the future of the Flagler Youth Orchestra.
“I live and breathe this program,” she said. “I refer to it as my third child. Just like with the account, I haven’t been given a lot of direction on how to run this program. I’m very proud of it. Every year we’ve had 75 to 125 kids on scholarships. We’ve had 10, 11, 12 kids use the same instrument. That kind of tickles me that one instrument has touched that many kids' lives.”