The New Math

A state audit criticizes the Seattle School District's finances.

For the sixth year in a row, the state auditor has asked the Seattle School District to pay more attention to how it handles taxpayer money. The new financial audit questions about $70,000 in spending and reveals numerous instances of apparent time-card and check forgery, of cafeteria help putting money in apron pockets, and of undocumented district meal tabs, including a $2,000 barbecue and a $250 bar charge. And that's from just a sampling of district schools and operations.

The district says that for the most part, it agrees with the findings, released July 26 and covering the 2000-2001 school year. Officials dispute some conclusions about meal and travel costs but say they're taking steps to correct any breakdowns. They have also told the auditor that a timekeeper at one school, Madrona Elementary, has admitted to signing the principal's name on time sheets of two of the timekeeper's family members, who also worked at the school.

Still, state auditor Brian Sonntag said this week that the district wasn't as cooperative as it could have been in helping auditors track the money flow. District officials, he notes, failed to schedule a requested auditor's interview with one of four employees from Madrona and Blaine elementary schools who may have been "overcompensated" as much as $46,000 through the improperly signed time cards.

The district also would not provide the auditor a summary of a meeting in which an employee was questioned about $1,000 in travel expenses. Nor did officials go along with the auditor's request to take surveillance video of cafeteria workers apparently pocketing lunch money from students, which the auditor's staff had earlier witnessed in person.

Instead, Sonntag's office learned, the district sent security officers to watch over the workers. But the officers discussed their surveillance with the food services manager.

"Kind of defeats the whole purpose," Sonntag said in an interview. His audit also reveals that "the principal at Madrona Elementary determined that someone else had signed her name on checks written against the school's purchase account."

Geri Lim, the district's chief financial officer, says she can't talk about that or the time cards because of pending legal action. But she says strict money controls mean a constant balancing act for the district, playing big money against little. "We have to figure how to do the best we can with the resources we have," she says. "We have to weigh costs against risks of things going wrong. The cost of making sure things all things run correctly vs. taking money out of the classroom."

Sonntag says he's concerned about the district's repeated failures and the annual promises to correct them. The funds questioned in the current audit account for a tiny amount of the district's $377 million budget, but the state has been making similar complaints about lack of oversight dating to 1995. Sonntag worries the sampling may be indicative of more widespread accounting problems, including $360,000 in school funds lost in limbo [see "Where's the 'Rithmetic?" June 20].

The latest audit determined that up to $4,000 in student store inventory was unaccounted for at West Seattle and Rainier Beach high schools; another $7,000 in yearbook sales and other funds could not be accounted for at Franklin High. The review also turned up about $5,000 in meals and travel expenses without support receipts. Included was $2,000 for a barbecue for which "the district has no documentation to demonstrate the purpose of this barbecue or who attended."

Among the auditor's many corrective recommendations are—as in the past—tightening of money handling and receipting and new payroll tracking procedures.

"Do they care enough to fix these problems or not? That's the question," says Sonntag. "There's a lot of public money involved here."

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