The fundraising drive by the Moten Center chess club had an underdog appeal. Most of the elementary school children had been removed from other D.C. schools for behavioral problems. Through the discipline of chess, they were learning life lessons: patience, focus, strategic thinking.Keep in mind that this money is not taxpayer money, not directly anyway, and is usually the result of a great deal of effort by the students themselves. This is just another item on the list of things that Chancellor Michelle Rhee has to deal with, even though she shouldn't have to.
In the spring of 2003, they were selling hot dogs and candy to try to pay their way to a national tournament. After their efforts were publicized in a newspaper column, money poured in from businesses, school officials, the public and even the principal's mother -- more than $72,000 in all, according to records and interviews. Eleven students, from some of the District's poorest neighborhoods, flew to Nashville.
Days after they returned home, somebody began raiding their leftover money. Most of it was stolen. Last week -- four years after the theft and following inquiries from The Washington Post -- authorities filed criminal charges against a former employee at the school.
The theft from the chess club is among dozens of instances in which D.C. public school employees or others have stolen or misused student activity money, a Post investigation has found. Management of the funds is chaotic, oversight is ineffective and the people responsible for plundering or squandering the money are rarely held accountable, according to internal audits, court documents, interviews and school records.
The failure to safeguard student money is a symptom of a public school system that has defied reform for decades and of a culture in which rules are broken with impunity.
"It's a travesty," said Vaughn Bennett, a former firefighter who was the Moten chess club's volunteer coach. "This is the kind of thing that stops D.C. schools from having an atmosphere of success."
Almost all of the District's 146 public schools have student activity funds -- bank accounts in which they deposit proceeds from bake sales, vending machines and sporting events, as well as charitable donations and, sometimes, federal grants. The funds take in as much as $6 million annually citywide, records show. A small elementary school might have only a few hundred dollars. But the fund at Cardozo High School reached $400,000 this year after a graduate bequeathed more than $200,000, records show. The student account at Wilson High School has deposits totaling more than $700,000 annually.
To a certain extent, such troubles are predictable, and not just because DC schools have a lot of corruption. Theft, or more accurately embezzlement, it made possible two things: Opportunity and lack of oversight. Those people whose job it is to maintain these funds often do so without any real regular oversight. The money is often brought to them in cash, by the kids. The kids, arguably, make a mistake in their tally and a few dollars here and there are skimmed off.
The mismanagement is rampant and the story details the sorry state of affairs and the pitiable consequences to students.
So what can be done. Just have some basic accounting practices put in place. Two people to count and verify all deposits. Two signatures on all checks. The person who writes checks doesn't manage the bank reconciliations. Annual audits and audits whenever the person with primary responsibility for the accounts change, etc. These are not rocket science accounting procedures but what all of these procedures do is make the opportunity for embezzlement much smaller.
After all this is not their money, it is money that belongs to the kids and is for their use and enjoyment.