JASPER, Missouri – Far too often, it takes a financial disaster to remind public school officials that they need to be careful guardians of public dollars.
In 2016, the small Jasper, Missouri school district experienced such a disaster.
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In the spring and summer of that year, school officials began noticing a pattern of unauthorized purchases, according to a report from KOAMTV.com.
The focus turned to a district secretary/bookkeeper, who was in charge of keeping track of purchases. That employee was asked to match a big pile of receipts with the district’s check register, to determine what was purchased and why.
It quickly became apparent that something was terribly wrong.
“She started the task, but within a couple of minutes, five minutes I’d say, she asked, ‘Do you just want me to resign?'” Jasper Superintendent Christina Hess was quoted as saying. “That was not our intent. We did not ask for that. Then she did resign.”
Forward to February of this year, when that employee, Karla Justice (also known as Karla Jessee) pleaded guilty to embezzling $145,726 from the school district from September 2013 to September 2016, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The press release said Justice admitted paying herself $80,858 in salary beyond what she was supposed to make, and as a result received nearly $13,000 in benefits that she was not entitled to. She also admitted to using $13,929 from the petty cash account for personal purchases and obtained a Home Depot credit card on behalf of the district, which she used to make $2,133 in personal purchases.
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The Justice Department press release noted that the employee “essentially had unlimited access to every aspect of the account and human resources functions for the district.”
That means she had full access to all of the money she stole, presumably with limited oversight or accountability.
And that means her bosses were almost as guilty as she was, for leaving taxpayer dollars inexcusably exposed to theft. In a memo released to the public in the midst of the scandal, the district announced that serious changes were being made, to prevent further embezzlement.
It said the district “has employed a different auditing firm to conduct the required annual school audit.” It also said the district would “separate central office financial and procedural duties to the greatest degree possible so that no one person has too great of access,” and “will always insist on personnel following all financial procedures.”
So obviously a serious lesson was learned by school administrators, the hard way.
But the nagging question persists – how could these professional people, charged with oversight of millions of hard-earned tax dollars, be so careless in the first place?
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