San Mateo grand jury: School district ‘irresponsible’

For the third time in as many months, a civil grand jury has released a scathing report that is highly critical of the financial management at the San Mateo Union High School District.

The 37-page document released Wednesday focuses on the district board of trustees, claiming that it “neglected its duties, was fiscally irresponsible and squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money.”

It was the latest in a series of critical reports from the civil grand jury — an independent investigative body that interviews witnesses and issues reports — that frames the district as financially problematic.

While the first report, released in April, focused on the district’s deficit spending, the second report in May focused on a construction contract, which contained unexplained fee increases, and was later severed.

While district officials acknowledged some points made in the first two reports, they were less receptive to the latest one.

“I don’t know what the grand jury is thinking, but I found the whole introduction of the report needlessly inflammatory,” trustee Peter Hanley said.

Hanley said the district board has already taken strides toward mending the district’s fiscal problems, such as cutting millions of dollars in spending, consolidating loans, replacing its auditing firm and creating a budget advisory committee.

The report further states that the misspent funds could have been directed toward the salaries of the 12 teachers and 36 staff members who were laid off last fall. Hanley rebuked that statement, saying the funds in question were legally confined to school construction.

“For them to make a statement that the layoffs could’ve been avoided is inaccurate and wrong,” he said.

The report also questioned $88,000 that was paid in back overtime to an executive assistant in November 2003 shortly before the retirement of then-superintendent Tom Mohr, who is currently president of Cañada College.

Mohr was on vacation Wednesday and not available for comment.

Board trustee Marcia Cohn-Lyle said all decisions, including the issuing of overtime, were approved by legal counsel at the time.

“There are oversight committees that look at practically everything we do,” said Cohn-Lyle, who called the report “frustrating.”

District Superintendent Sam Johnson is retiring June 29 after a contentious three years at the helm. In a statement, Johnson defended the board of trustees, adding that district officials have already met with legal counsel to draft a response.

The civil grand jury foreman, Stephan Freer, would not comment, saying that what the report says “stands on its own.”

Criticisms levied at school district

Wednesday’s civil grand jury report criticizes the San Mateo Union High School District on four points.

» Lack of transparency in financial disclosures in district audits

» Failure to meet criteria for state funding of school construction

» Missing documentation of overtime paid to an executive assistant in 2003

» Using the general fund to pay certificate of participation loans

The report can be read at www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury

bfoley@examiner.com

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