Charter school's spending questioned


Published: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

Debit card purchases at Victoria's Secret and Lovely Nails and credit card charges, including $200 for a dinner at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake, have school district officials investigating a "number of irregularities" in the finances of Gainesville charter school Hoggetowne Middle School.

From January 2006 through September 2008, the district says there were $24,136.04 in personal expenditures billed to the credit card that Hoggetowne principal Kristine Santos used.

The charter school used taxpayer money received from the school district to pay the bills, according to a Finance Department report.

Besides the Aug. 27, 2008, dinner at Dragonfly - which included two Tanqueray gins and three Michelob Ultra light beers and, apparently, a $50 tip - the school district review questioned the purchases of a mattress set, credit reports, pharmaceuticals, personal wealth courses and credit protection fees.

Other credit card charges included $2,187 at a supermarket, $1,203 worth of restaurant meals, $1,580 for gasoline and car rentals and $7,871 worth of other miscellaneous purchases.

"I am very concerned that there appears to be a pattern of the school using public funds to pay for the personal expenditures of the principal," Alachua County Superintendent of Schools Dan Boyd wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to the Hoggetowne board of directors. "I am also concerned that the school does not have adequate internal controls over expenditures to prevent, deter or detect these kind of irregularities."

The Finance Department review also stated there were more than $29,000 worth of debit card purchases from July 2006 to August 2008.

But the report stated that, while some of those purchases did not appear to be school-related, there was not sufficient documentation in the way of bank statements to conclude they were for personal use.

In his letter, Boyd set a Feb. 13 deadline for the Hoggetowne board of director to provide the school district with information on the "corrective action" the school would take.

The Finance Department recommended Santos return the money for purchases that were not school-related and that the Hoggetowne board of directors get the State Attorney's Office involved.

Members of the Hoggetowne board could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a brief e-mail statement to The Sun, Santos said the school will provide the answers that the school district seeks.

"The school is currently investigating each question that has been brought up by the Alachua County Public School's Board of Directors," she wrote. "Prior to the deadline that they have set for a response, Hoggetowne Middle School, Inc. will answer, with documentation, each question."

The school district review pointed out that the 2005-06 audit for Hoggetowne contained a recommendation that the principal not use the school debit card to make purchases.

The current review of finances started last September when a school district staff member went to Hoggetowne to assist the school's new bookkeeper.

On Dec. 2, Santos produced a letter dated Dec. 1, 2008, which stated she was responsible for paying the credit card.

But the school district noted her name and address were added to the account's billing information in November 2008, after the school district review began.

On Jan. 9, Santos told school district officials that she was unable to find many of the receipts they had requested after a break-in at the school, according to the school district report.

The Alachua County School Board approved the charter for Hoggetowne Middle in December 2002 and approved an increase in the school's enrollment cap last June. Hoggetowne, at 3930 NE 15th St., has approximately 150 students in grades 6-8.

By state law, charter schools receive public tax money through the local school district. But, unless a charter school is in a state of financial emergency, school district review of finances is usually limited to an annual audit.

"Our staff will write up, and probably has written up, concerns about the bookkeeping," Alachua County School Board member Wes Eubank said. "But we can't control what they do on a day to day basis. There's not a lot of control we have over them."

Last year, the School Board members were frustrated because a closed charter school, Love to Learn, paid out more than $90,000 in severance pay to three employees after the board revoked that school's charter.

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