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Schools toughen money controls

Spending practices are changing after two employees were accused of buying personal items with school money.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


TAMPA -- Four years ago, a state audit called for tighter controls over purchasing in Hillsborough County schools. If changes aren't made, auditors warned, unauthorized spending could occur.

Now, after two maintenance officials were accused of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on personal items such as televisions and stereos, changes are under way to end some lax spending practices.

But why didn't stricter procedures begin years earlier?

"We monitor things as closely as possible," said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent of business. "But there comes a point in time, you do have to trust your employees."

Current changes include increasing the use of district credit cards for smaller items that are not put out to bid and reducing the amount of goods kept in stock, having them delivered when needed instead.

Purchases in some departments are being monitored weekly.

A recently released private investigative report accuses maintenance employees Roosevelt Lawrence Jr. and Larry T. Pound of using school money to buy items for their own use. It found they consistently bought items from unauthorized vendors, primarily a Scotty's home improvement store.

Some employees told investigators the men would spend $1,000 to $2,000 weekly on such items as compact disc players, wrapping paper and vacuum cleaner bags. Between 1997 and their suspension in February, the men spent $22,000 at Scotty's. Last year alone, records show, Lawrence made 637 purchases there.

At the heart of the abuse of district funds was a system of purchasing known as "blanket purchase orders," similar to open corporate accounts. Certain employees are allowed to buy items, usually costing less than $2,000, on an as-need basis and charge them against a blanket purchase order.

Officials said the orders allow schools and department heads to get day-to-day supplies immediately.

But the Auditor General noted in 1997 that "Failure to effectively control purchase authorizations can result in the purchase of unauthorized goods and/or services." The audit uncovered $217,583 in blanket purchase orders that exceeded approved limits.

The audit also said the district should be explicit as to what kinds of goods and services can be bought under the blanket purchase orders.

Bookman said officials began more closely monitoring maximum purchase amounts on blanket purchase orders after the audit. And since the four-month investigation of the maintenance department concluded in March, the scrutiny has intensified.

"Every dollar going out inappropriately is another dollar that could be going to a classroom," said Jack Davis, the assistant superintendent of operations who oversees the maintenance department. "We don't want to give money away."

Davis has asked managers that report to him to check all purchases weekly.

District officials hope to eventually phase out the use of blanket purchase orders with the use of Visa cards. They began testing them this school year at the district level and will distribute some to several schools beginning July 1.

Limits will be placed on how much can be charged and where they can be used. In addition, the number of times they can be used at certain stores will be limited.

The school system's supervisor of purchasing, Willie Campbell, said the district will no longer accept generalities about what is being purchased, such as "miscellaneous items for maintenance."

"We're going to be clear with a list of items," he said. "If it doesn't fall within that list, it will not be purchased."

Hillsborough schools is the county's largest employer, with about 30,000 employees. Not including construction projects, about $200-million in goods and services are purchased annually.

The school system hired a private investigator in November after Doug Erwin, general director of maintenance, reported complaints from his employees about questionable purchases by Lawrence and Pound.

The State Attorney's Office is reviewing the case.

Lawrence, who worked for the district for 12 years, resigned in April after Superintendent Earl Lennard recommended his firing. Pound has appealed Lennard's recommendation to fire him to the School Board. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Personnel records show both men received good evaluations and were promoted several times.

- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

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