The Los Angeles school board and Hugh Jones, its new business czar, should move now to create an independent inspector general's post to audit spending and probe tips from whistle-blowers. Supt. Ruben Zacarias asked earlier this month that such a position be established to review a number of expenditures, but the school board has not acted.
More justification for this request, if any was needed, comes from a state audit released Tuesday. Though inconclusive on charges of retaliation against whistle-blowers in the district, the probe did document lax scrutiny of small checking accounts controlled by principals at each school. A strong inspector general could address both problems.
Events leading to the state audit began with a teacher who claimed he pointed out spending irregularities in his school's checking account and then faced trumped-up charges that he had sexually abused a student. He was later cleared. The claims of others who alleged they too were falsely accused of child abuse were brought to the attention of Assembly members Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway) and Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon), who lobbied for the audit. The state reviewed 26 cases and could neither prove nor disprove the retaliation charges. It did find inconsistencies in such investigations and recommended a consistent, written policy spelling out the actions to be taken when child abuse is charged in the L.A. Unified School District.
The state auditor also found sloppy management of the small checking accounts, which average $2,000 per campus at any given time and total $6 million in annual spending districtwide. Administrators need these accounts to make small purchases quickly, without excess paperwork. But the accounts should be better managed. Among the report's recommendations: Administrators should require original receipts for reimbursement; checking accounts and bank statements should be reconciled monthly, and accounts should be audited more often. Currently it may be 10 or 15 years between audits, though receipts must be held for only five years.
Henry Jones, the district's chief financial officer, has already proposed tighter controls on the school accounts. He also noted: "That's $6 million in a nearly $6-billion budget." But that's still real money. Zacarias and the school board should get these problems off the table quickly. The L.A. schools need every available dollar for textbooks, library books and other tools of instruction. They need public trust even more.