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Published in Print: May 30, 2001, as San Francisco School Spending Investigated

San Francisco School Spending Investigated

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New investigations into the alleged mishandling of facilities funds by San Francisco school administrators may help clear the fog surrounding the district's troubled spending history, officials there say.

The city attorney's office, the FBI, and the district attorney's office are conducting separate investigations into how millions of dollars in voter-approved bond funds for new facilities and renovations were used, and whether there was criminal wrongdoing.

San Francisco schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman requested the investigations earlier this month after a report by a private consultant blasted the district's fiscal-management practices.

The report found that money was moved between accounts without proper authorization, key management positions were empty, undisciplined accounting practices occurred, and purchasing policies for real estate were ambiguous.

"Our tough actions for these tough problems are based on data, not supposition," Ms. Ackerman said in a statement included with the report.

Added to the mix is a controversial and expensive technology plan conceived by a former $1,000-a-day consultant who was released by the district last fall and is now suing the district for character defamation. The technology plan was also scrapped.

David Campos, San Francisco's deputy city attorney, said that the three agencies were "working together," although he could not provide details of each agency's role in the reviews.

"The process is pretty broad and pretty thorough," he said. The agencies hope to finish their work as soon as possible, though Mr. Campos would not speculate when that might be. "This covers a lot of things," he said.

Loss of Public Trust?

School board member Dan Kelly agreed that the investigations are essential to getting school construction projects back on track.

"We can't seek new bonds till the facilities accounts have been completely audited and reconciled, but we don't have that information yet," he said. "There is easily $500 million to $1 billion in deferred maintenance, renovations, and new construction needed."

Unless the current questions over fiscal anomalies are cleared up, however, Mr. Kelly is not sure if the public will trust the district enough to pass new bonds.

Recently, the city's Board of Supervisors, which directs some city funds to the 60,000-student system, tried to come up with some answers by holding a rare hearing on the district's finances.

According to most accounts, however, the hearing produced more finger-pointing than revelations.

Ms. Ackerman, who is in her first year as the chief of San Francisco schools, did not attend the hearing. But her predecessor, Waldemar "Bill" Rojas, did show up.

Mr. Rojas left San Francisco in 1999 to head the Dallas schools. But he was fired from that Texas job after a year of mostly strained relations with the school board.

He attended the May 16 hearing to counter allegations that much of the mismanagement occurred during his watch.

"How long, when budgets are produced year to year, are you going to blame Bill Rojas?" he asked the board, according to news reports. "I may not have been the most popular superintendent, but you don't have a single audit saying we weren't solvent."

Mr. Kelly said that while there may be "ample reason to suspect mismanagement" in previous years, the board refrained from questioning or criticizing the prior administration.

"This debacle is a case study of a board's abdication of responsibility," added Mr. Kelly, who has been a member of that body since 1990.

Vol. 20, Issue 38, Page 6

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