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Hazelwood parents call for state audit of school district

Hazelwood School District parents Barb Jaycox (left) and Sonya Thayer greet visitors to the Knights of Columbus swap meet in Florissant as they work to have voters sign a petition to order a state audit of the district on Saturday, July 16, 2016 in Florissant. Jaycox has three children in the school district while Thayer has two. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

After a Hazelwood School District principal admitted in 2016 that she stole thousands of dollars from her own high school, the School Board chose not to tell police. Instead, the principal left the district without a blemish on her teaching license.

That same school year, the district collected tens of thousands of dollars in extra state funding it was not supposed to get because of the way it recorded student attendance.

Also in 2016, the district paid $200 for tickets to a charity auction to benefit an area Catholic high school and $1,301 for a security guard to drive board members and the superintendent to a conference at Lake of the Ozarks.

Those are among the findings of a long-awaited state audit of the Hazelwood School District, released by state Auditor Nicole Galloway at a public forum Wednesday.

The audit not only confirmed that a former principal stole money from Hazelwood Central High School, but it also criticized district officials for spending money on things that did not directly benefit students, not following transparent practices and failing to keep track of all cash.

“Some of these expenditures may be appropriate, but every dollar the school district spends should be scrutinized in ways that address the needs of students,” Galloway said at the forum, held at Hazelwood Central High.

The audit found that:

• The district reaped at least $95,000 in state funding last school year that it was not supposed to receive. The district improperly recorded 14,787 attendance hours at four schools by crediting students with full attendance even though they cut class or arrived late.

It’s likely that this over-counting of attendance is happening at the district’s other schools, as well, auditors said. The district responded that it would correct the attendance issue for students who cut class and would require administrator approval for changes after a certain number of days. The district said it had been following state policy because students may be counted as present if they are in class for the majority of a class period.

In regard to attendance, Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said the district had corrected its attendance records and eliminated the option for students to be marked as having cut class.

• Former Principal Audrey Lee, who resigned in October 2016, admitted to the district that she stole thousands of dollars from Central High School.

A total of $8,175 was missing from the high school between August 2015 and October 2016. The district let Lee pay back just $3,080 because Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Julia Burke said there was no clear evidence that Lee had taken the rest of the money. The School Board decided not to report the theft to police for the same reason. The board did not document that decision, according to the audit.

State law bars state employees who are convicted of stealing $5,000 or more from receiving retirement benefits. Lee kept her retirement benefits, and her Missouri teaching license is still valid with no disciplinary action on her record, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

• Schools lacked thorough procedures and practices for providing receipts, depositing money, keeping money secure, counting money, keeping records and segregating accounting duties. Some schools recorded cash that was unaccounted for, kept inaccurate and incomplete receipts, kept cash in places that were easily accessible by several staff members and failed to document all deposits. The district promised to “review and expand” current policies and provide guidance on financial procedures.

• The district spent money on things “that did not seem reasonable and/or provide a benefit to the school district.” The audit noted that the School Board and superintendent spent more than $387,000 in the past two school years on membership fees, travel, gifts, airfare and meeting expenses. The district spends tens of thousands of dollars on items such as sympathy flowers, sympathy cards, “excessive tipping,” bellhops, valet parking, extra airline fees, gifts, T-shirts and board meals.

The district pays a $600 monthly car allowance to the associate superintendent in addition to mileage reimbursement, even though the associate superintendent only drove $250 worth of mileage for the entire last school year. The district defended much of this spending, stating that the auditor did not explicitly say the expenditures were inappropriate.

• The School Board discussed topics, including the budget impact of changing custodial positions, in closed meetings that were not allowed by state law to be closed. The board also held certain public meetings without posting accurate notice on its website, as it does for most of its meetings.

• The district lease-purchased 16,000 Chromebooks for a total of $4.75 million without a proper bid process nor a documented comprehensive cost study. The district says that all the Chromebooks are still being used for student learning and that it reviewed other brands of laptops before choosing Chromebooks.

• Finally, the district had no internal auditor. Such an internal auditing role could have uncovered several findings in this state audit earlier, the audit said. The district said it would appoint somebody to review operations daily.

Galloway credited the district for already working to implement her recommendations.

“We found that they took this audit seriously and are creating a path forward to address issues that we identified throughout the audit process,” she said.

The audit was launched in January last year, after district residents gathered 6,082 certified petition signatures.

The petition effort was led by district parent Betsy Rachel, who just last month won a seat on the School Board. In the past two school years, Hazelwood has gotten a new superintendent and four new board members.

Collins-Hart said the audit was expected to cost the district about $120,000.

Residents who were active with the petition effort said the audit confirmed what they had been urging district officials to investigate for the past two years.

“I wasn’t really surprised,” Rachel said after Wednesday’s meeting. “It was a lot of what we were expecting they would find, it was honestly a lot of what parents had brought to administrators and asked them to look at. In some respects, I suppose I feel validated. I certainly feel like it was time and effort well spent.”

In regards to the Central High School theft, Rachel said that “it’s not how I would’ve liked to see it handled,” but she acknowledged she didn’t have all information about the issue.

Rachel, who said she was speaking as an individual and not as a school board member, added that she was “really encouraged” that the district seemed to be taking the audit seriously.