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Inspector's Report Blasts Chicago District's 'Lack of Accountability'

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Chicago school engineers and maintenance assistants have reaped thousands of dollars in questionable overtime payments, according to the first report from the school system's new inspector general.

Kenneth K. Holt, who began his job last spring, charged that the Chicago district suffers from a "persistent lack of accountability" that "saps the strength and efficiency of the entire system."

Mr. Holt, empowered by Illinois law to probe waste, fraud, and financial mismangement in the $3 billion system, set up a hot line that logged 225 calls, most involving alleged fraud.

The complaints covered a wide range of practices, including employees' obtaining vendor numbers and billing the board for services, administrators' filling positions with people who were not certified for them, "ghost" employees who drew paychecks without working, and employees who lived in the suburbs yet failed to pay tuition for enrolling their children in Chicago schools.

Mr. Holt said one of the worst practices he found is the amount of weekend overtime the system pays to engineers and maintenance assistants.

'Staggering' Expenses

In two years, the school board spent almost $1.5 million for such overtime, he found, a "staggering" number "suggestive of abuse, waste, and possibly criminal fraud," the report says.

General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson said in a statement that she would not tolerate wrongdoing of any kind. She refused, however, to comment on specific allegations in the report, noting that some are being investigated by the inspector general and the school board.

John Phelan, the president of Local 399 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents school-maintenance workers in the district, which represents school-maintenance workers, could not be reached for comment.

Board policy requires an engineer to be present when schools are used on weekends by community groups. But Mr. Holt found that if more than one community group had permits for weekend activities at the same school at the same time, more than one engineer was assigned to work.

The board spent $1.1 million on overtime payments when more than one engineer was working, the report says. The inspector general is continuing to investigate the payments and urged the school board to stop the practice.

The board also spent lavishly to pay maintenance assistants, who take care of schools' heating systems, to work weekends in schools with fully automated heating systems requiring little attention.

Maintenance assistants received $374,000 for weekend overtime in schools with automated heating systems. At one school, the inspector general found, an assistant was paid nearly $43,000 during the two-year period for weekend work--including 78 hours of overtime in one pay period.

Referrals to F.B.I.

The inspector general opened 92 cases in his first six months, 15 of which have been closed. Three others were referred to the board of education, six were referred to the Cook County state attorney's office, and two were passed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the report says.

In addition to calling for reduced weekend overtime for maintenance employees, the report recommended that the board:

  • Develop an inventory-control system to track equipment in schools;
  • Establish a policy governing what employees can do while they are on paid sick leave; and
  • Insure that the internal-audit department does a better job of following up on its findings.

Late last month, as the result of an ongoing internal investigation launched in August, Ms. Johnson announced disciplinary actions against eight employees in a variety of job categories. They were accused of offenses including mismanagement, theft, attempted forgery, and falsifying documents.

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