Unanswered Questions from the La Jolla High Audit - Voice of San Diego

Education

Unanswered Questions from the La Jolla High Audit

An audit of the school’s Associated Student Body fund showed a program in financial disarray. What’s the district going to do about that?

A recent audit of the Associated Student Body financial operation at La Jolla High School revealed some extraordinary truths about how the program was being run.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending was lacking any supporting documentation like receipts, the audit found. More than $20,000 had essentially gone missing. And fundamental accounting rules had been ignored, so that students were charged for illegitimate costs while the San Diego Unified School District was short-changed on payments to staff and consultants.

A statement from new Superintendent Cindy Marten, released soon after the audit, promised reform.

Marten pledged to discipline managers responsible for the disarray in La Jolla and the district announced that an accounting clerk at the center of the allegations had resigned and was under investigation.

But some fundamental questions remain about the audit and the district’s response. We put these questions to the district, but we’ve yet to hear back.

The audit, in several places, talks of La Jolla High Principal Dana Shelburne’s “violation of managerial responsibility.” What punitive action, if any, is being taken against Shelburne and other superiors responsible for overseeing the ASB accounts?

This is a tricky one, and so far there’s been no straightforward answer.

Any action against Shelburne or other district managers would likely be kept secret because it’s a “personnel issue.” That’s the catch-all term government agencies use to keep the public in the dark about any punitive action they’re taking against staff.

In this case, however, there are significant reasons why we should be told if Shelburne or others are in hot water.

As the overseers of the ASB program, the buck stops with the principal and other supervisors to ensure the fund is being correctly managed. The audit shows that money has gone missing, basic accounting rules were ignored and that $2,000 was even used for a “high risk” activity — a fireworks show — at the school.

Bottom line: What’s the point of an audit if the people responsible don’t get held accountable?

Students at La Jolla High were improperly charged for the use of lockers at the school and other costs. Will those students be repaid?

The audit found that the school’s ASB program bought new lockers, then charged students a fee for using them.

In a testy response to the auditors quoted in the audit, Shelburne wrote:

“The district has repeatedly stated that it does not purchase lockers for schools nor support their maintenance. … So the Foundation stepped in to raise the money needed to install the original lockers. Since then, we annually ask for a donation to maintain/replace the lockers we have installed. That said, any student who wants a locker gets one, donation or not.”

OK.

But as the audit points out, the California Constitution requires that students in the state get a free education. That extends to free use of a locker, the auditors concluded, and the school must stop asking students for a fee.

But what about all those students who paid fees for the last few years? The fees aren’t steep — $20 per year — but that’s not the point. If the fee was improperly charged, shouldn’t they get their money back?

We’re waiting for the district to tell us.

This point extends to other fees, mentioned in the audit, that students have been asked to pay, including for identification cards and gym clothes.

If the district doesn’t require the ASB to pay up, the only recourse may be for La Jolla High parents, or students, to come together in a class action lawsuit. That’s pretty unlikely, given the small amount of money involved, and we haven’t heard of any legal action — yet.

Will students be required to pay back the scholarships and awards the school’s ASB program improperly handed out?

The audit states that 18 students were handed awards, sometimes several hundred dollars each, by the ASB fund.

That’s against the district’s rules. “The ASB checking account is not to be used as a pass through account,” the auditors concluded, suggesting the money was handed out without any strings attached. Students shouldn’t just be handed checks to spend on whatever they want. So, will the students be asked to pay that money back?

Fair’s fair. If the ASB has to pay the district back, and the school has to pay the students back, then shouldn’t the students have to pay back their awards, too?

We’ll see what the district concludes.

The school entered into large contracts with vendors without putting the contracts out to bid. Should those contracts be further scrutinized?

The district has a rule requiring ASB programs to get at least three bids for any contracts larger than $1,500.

La Jolla High clearly ignored that rule when it awarded a contract that turned out to be worth just shy of $100,000 to a yearbook printer without seeking other bids.

The auditor’s recommendation: The principal has to get bids in the future.

But what about the $100,000 the school spent on yearbooks last year? Shouldn’t the school be required to take a look at whether that was a reasonable price? But the district appears to be satisfied simply with ensuring the same thing doesn’t happen again.

What’s the district doing about oversight of these programs?

We have a partial answer to this question.

This is the third such ASB audit the district has completed in recent months. Two others, one at Morse High School and one at Mira Mesa High, both revealed significant issues, too, though arguably none as serious as the problems at La Jolla High.

Marten pledged that the district will provide training to the individuals who oversee ASB programs across the district. And she promised “appropriate action” would be taken against the individuals named in any audits.

Stephen Carr, head of the district’s internal audit department also told U-T San Diego that “the district is currently working on an ASB training process that will be rolled out in the next few months.”

We’ve asked the district for more information about this training.

If the problems with ASB programs are as widespread as suggested by these three audits, then it’s crucial for the district to spend serious time and resources making sure its rules are actually being followed.

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