BILLINGS — A former superintendent of tiny Billings Public Schools is under investigation for possibly forging the signatures of school board members on employee contracts.
Susan Ellis, who was the district's top administrator for two years beginning with the 2008-09 school year, has since worked for the state Department of Education as a coordinator. She left that position earlier in the month.
Billings Police Chief Robert Johnson said he took the initial complaint on Ellis from a district secretary, who he says has since been fired.
The complaint was soon sent to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for further review.
Johnson said it appeared at first that Ellis had embezzled “around $90,000” from the district, but auditors soon discovered it was essentially a data entry error. The possible forgeries were discovered around the same time, he said.
“It looked like there had been something to do with signatures being copied or forged ... on employee contracts or something to that effect,” Johnson said. “That can be a big deal and that is what they were going to look at.”
OSBI spokeswoman Jessica Brown confirmed the state agency is looking into Ellis' activities while she headed up the rural school district.
Specific details about the investigation, including whose signatures may have been forged and an exact time frame, were not yet available due to the ongoing investigation.
Personnel records at the state Education Department show that Ellis was superintendent of Billings Public Schools for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, drawing a total compensation package of $76,070 her first year on the job.
Department spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton said records show that Ellis was paid $90,341 in total compensation in 2009-10, but that the former administrator only worked about half the year.
According to data available on the state Education Department's website, Billings Public Schools had 82 students enrolled in the district last school year.
The district, serving a town of 509 residents, received $891,634 in local, state and federal funds last school year — among the lowest totals in the state.
Brian Hermanson, district attorney in Noble County, said he is waiting for more reports from the OSBI related to the investigation.
He said he expects those within “the next couple of days” and indicated he would decide how to proceed once he received those findings.
Hermanson would not comment on the specifics of the case but did say he was “very, very familiar with” Ellis and the investigation.
Neither Hermanson nor Johnson would address the intent of the possible forgeries or what may be been gained or lost because of them.
Calls made and emails sent to current Billings Public Schools Superintendent Rodney Vollmer to determine times and dates of the possible forgeries weren't returned.
Ellis could not be reached for comment.
Time at Education Department
Damon Gardenhire, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said Ellis was hired by the department in August 2010 and resigned her position July 2.
Gardenhire said Ellis was a coordinator with Special Education Services.
He said the division “provides outreach and support for school districts regarding special education ... including the retention of special education instructors.”
Gardenhire said Ellis was never disciplined while she worked at the state Education Department and that he didn't think the department was aware of the circumstances surrounding her departure from Billings Public Schools.