BUNNELL – The Flagler School Board on Tuesday was presented with the results of an independent inspection of the financials of the Flagler Youth Orchestra. The presenter was Zach Chalifour, head of Government Services at the James Moore & Consultants accounting firm. Chalifour told the Board that the inspection was not technically an audit, but fulfilled the goal of identifying wrongdoing, or lack thereof, in its subject.
The results of the inspection, still largely referred to as an audit for brevity, were mostly positive and satisfactory according to Chalifour’s summation. He stated in no uncertain terms that no illegal activity was found in the orchestra’s activities over the last three fiscal years, and that nothing rose above the level of ‘questionable’.
That one instance Chalifour highlighted was a series of small payments made via Amazon purchases that benefited the nonprofit organization of the director’s spouse. Cheryl Tristam, the then-director of the Orchestra, used a feature known as Amazon Smile in which customers could choose to donate 0.5% of their purchase price to the nonprofit of their choice. Tristam chose FlaglerLive, the nonprofit news website owned and operated by her husband, Pierre Tristam. However, although Tristam used her own bank account for the transactions, Amazon itself makes the donations to the nonprofit, not the customer. A total of just under four dollars was contributed to FlaglerLive by Amazon, as a result of purchases made by Cheryl for the FYO. No money went from the Orchestra to FlaglerLive.
Board member Will Furry asked Chalifour about another portion of the presentation, in regards to line item transactions which weren’t supported by purchase receipts or other justifications. In the fiscal year 2020 there were 13 cash payments out of 193 that were not supported, in the fiscal year 2021 there were 3 payments out of 105, and there were 12 out of 176 in 2022. According to Chalifour, these numbers were on the lower side, even if zero is the ultimate goal.
Also discussed was a portion of scholarship grant money which was given to Luka Tristam, Cheryl and Pierre’s son, who participated in FYO while in high school. Chalifour commented that Luka had been part of a group of seniors to earn the scholarship, and that he wasn’t singled out. “If you were an active member and a graduating senior, you got a scholarship,” Cheryl Tristam said in an interview after the workshop. “That was the only criteria. It wasn’t based on an essay or volunteer hours or an application that put the decision in any single person’s hands to pick the recipients.”
Later in the presentation, the original issue that warranted the audit was brought back to the forefront: whose responsibility it was to carry out the financials over the years that the Orchestra has operated. The FYO went through an 18-year period with no audit, drawing scrutiny to all involved. Who exactly should bear the blame has been the subject of lengthy debate. Flagler Schools Finance Director Patty Wormeck said Cheryl was unaware of these procedures during her time as director.
Around this point, Board member Colleen Conklin invoked the district’s role in this vacuum of responsibility. “Is it true we did not offer training to Mrs. Tristam on those procedures?” she asked. Wormeck confirmed this was the case. “If I had been trained on the protocols or if the finance department had been following their own protocols,” Tristam would later say, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
Furry, ostensibly sensing some responsibility of the district’s, was quick to then point out Tristam’s job responsibilities, none of which were carrying out the FYO’s financials. “Bookkeeping was not one of the ones listed on [her contract],” he said. “Therefore, she took on that duty and there would’ve been nothing to indicate to us internally to offer that type of training.”
“That’s kind of unfair,” Conklin responded. “She’s the director, so who else is gonna do it?”
“The CFO and the accounting department,” Furry rebutted. “Clearly in her job description it does not say that it was a role we asked her to do.”
“I’m gonna venture a guess that there were a lot of things that she did that were not in her job description,” Colleen fired back. “Just like everybody in this district.” The exchange ended there.
The last, smaller point of contention to arise was one substitute teacher who had, at one point, been paid to instruct the FYO without having had a background check conducted. Both Conklin in the meeting and Tristam in a private interview confirmed the identity of this teacher: she was the daughter of Joe Corporan, the FYO’s Artistic Director and Cello Instructor. Corporan’s daughter is an accomplished musician with an education at Stetson University. Conklin made a point to say this didn’t absolve the lack of a background check, but that it did establish a distinction between her and a true stranger to the department.
With an independent examination of the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s financials now completed, all involved are likely hoping to leave the issue behind. Tristam stepped down from her post in the weeks since the controversy began, but she has said she still wishes the department the best. “My time as its director was filled with great successes achieved with amazing teachers and musicians,” Tristam said. “I will always be proud of that. The audit reflects my efforts to be a good steward of the community’s support, despite absent district controls. I appreciate the school district providing this amazing opportunity to the children of our community, and I wish the very best for the future of the program.”