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April 25, 2004

School For Deaf Faulted on Spending

From: Washington Post - Washington,DC,USA - Apr 25, 2004

State Finds Poor Oversight on Spending

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page C07

Officials of the taxpayer-funded Maryland School for the Deaf are challenging a state audit that found several improprieties at the Frederick campus last year, including lax controls over purchasing in the maintenance department and a practice by several employees of using extended lunch breaks to work on supervisors' private properties.

The Office of Legislative Audits, prompted by a call to its fraud hotline from a former school employee in March 2003, also found that several maintenance department employees used state vehicles for private purposes, borrowed other state equipment and made thousands of dollars in questionable and poorly documented purchases.

For example, according to the report, the school failed to account adequately for the June 2000 purchase of a $9,490 tire-changing device. Auditors were initially told that the school needed the machine for a vocational program for its students, but learned later that the vocational program had been discontinued before the school acquired the commercial-grade machine.

The school then told auditors that the tire-changing machine had been purchased to service its fleet of 15 vehicles -- an assertion also questioned by auditors, who said much larger state agencies had found such equipment to be less cost-effective than having tires repaired by outside garages.

In interviews and in official responses to the audit report, James E. Tucker, the school's superintendent, played down some of the findings and disputed others. He said that auditors failed to take into account existing controls on purchasing at the school and that the irregularities were isolated incidents that have been handled by school officials. Tucker said they are not indicative of broader problems, as the report suggests.

The school took punitive action against several employees, including the maintenance supervisor, and created a managerial position to oversee the department. The attorney general's criminal division was notified of the allegations.

None of the employees was named in the audit report. School officials declined to identify them or relate specifics about the abuses, saying they could not comment in detail on personnel issues.

"The school is still in discussion with the Office of Legislative Audits on the accuracy of their Special Review last year, and the School has challenged many of their findings," Tucker, who is deaf, said in an e-mail interview. "Finally, it was the new budget analyst at the Department of Legislative Services who speculated that 'MSD may have more systemic problems with its supervision of procurement practices. . . .' We see no basis for her speculation."

Barbara Raimondo, president of the school's board of trustees, also characterized the improprieties as isolated events. "I do have full confidence in and support for the staff and that the concerns were addressed," Raimondo said. "They took the findings very seriously."

Jamie St. Onge, spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., declined to comment on the findings. Tucker said that although the criminal division was notified, the matter was not referred for prosecution.

The Maryland School for the Deaf educates deaf and hard-of-hearing students from birth to age 21 at campuses in Columbia and downtown Frederick. As of February, there were 508 students enrolled, according to Tucker, who arrived in July 1992. School officials said the school's most pressing concerns involve keeping pace with technological change and complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Its budget appropriation for fiscal 2004 was about $23.1 million.

The maintenance department tallied $133,549 in purchases without taking competitive bids or properly documenting the bids, the audit found. Those dealings were largely under the control of the maintenance supervisor, the report said.

The auditors noted that the school's funding for maintenance and plant operations at both campuses had been increased by $343,267 for fiscal 2005, which accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total funding increase at the school. The report also noted that $306,709 went to the Frederick maintenance department and represented a 17 percent increase over the previous year's allocation.

"I wouldn't characterize any of these activities as not significant," said Bruce A. Myers, legislative auditor, disputing the school's characterization of the irregularities as minor. "I don't think this is routine. It was pretty sloppy."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company