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Lax oversight allowed schools' money mess
A Times Editorial
Published November 4, 2007
Multiple public high schools in Pasco County are flunking lessons on internal cash controls. ¶ Lax efforts to follow established accounting procedures have brought a criminal investigation of $20,000 missing at Pasco High in Dade City, a Sheriff's Office report but no criminal charges into misplaced cash at Land O'Lakes High and internal findings of fraud at River Ridge High in west Pasco.
The discrepancies, uncovered by annual district audits, are troubling for both their size and extent. It is indicative of principals, business managers and bookkeepers failing to adhere to written guidelines to keep track of discretionary money for athletics and other extracurricular activities.
The sloppiness/suspected criminal behavior is a detriment to the widespread community fundraising done each year. More than $25-million passes through the school accounts annually, with all transactions at the principals' discretion, according to an Oct. 1 resignation letter from Karen LaRochelle, the auditor who brought the matter to the attention of the Times. "No one scrutinizes these accounts with the exception of one person, one time a year, the internal auditor," she wrote.
That is problematic and damages schools' credibility. A parent paying to park the family vehicle, to enter the football stadium for a game and again to buy a halftime soda and hot dog at the concession should have confidence the money is being handled properly and not ending up in someone's pocket.
Among the findings in school district and Sheriff's Office records:
- Pasco High transferred money donated for its neediest students to cover athletic department deficits. It didn't keep track of concession or ticket sales and coaches weren't accountable for meal money while teams traveled to away games. The district gave the school's overwhelmed bookkeeper additional training, but an auditor's return visit four months later uncovered $20,000 in missing gate receipts.
The audit at Pasco also discovered the school accepted bad checks from the same source three times because it kept no list of people required to pay with cash. Some transactions lacked the principal's approval and frequently the bookkeeper signed the principal's or sponsors' names to verify money collected.
- Land O'Lakes administrators called in deputies and district auditors after a bookkeeper said she declined to turn over money to a secretary for deposit because she "didn't trust her." The bookkeeper no longer works at the school after auditors found nearly $19,000 that had not been deposited properly and couldn't account for $929 more. No charges were filed.
- Auditors are continuing their review at River Ridge, where they found falsified ticket sale reports in which personnel re-created receipts - a euphemism for phonying up records after the fact - to reconcile cash with attendance at a sports event. The school didn't keep track of concession stand proceeds and had to close its booster club accounts because of sloppy record keeping.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino this week issued a written reminder to principals of their obligations to oversee these accounts after reporting by Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek. That's fine, but the memorandum came a year after the critical audits and 30 days after LaRochelle's resignation letter highlighted what she perceived to be slow action to address the problems.
Fiorentino shouldn't hesitate to demand greater accountability. The people educating Pasco's children shouldn't get a pass if they fail to educate themselves on how to balance the books.