On March 10, nearly 250 teachers and staff who serve the county’s most troubled students gathered for a town hall meeting inside a movie theater at the Mission Valley Hazard Center. They were prepared to air their workplace grievances and get answers, but what came to pass instead was a party.

Employees of the San Diego County Office of Education in attendance all received $100 vouchers for use at the nearby Barnes & Noble or Lakeshore Learning stores. The catch: The money had to be spent on the spot, that same day, before 8 p.m.

Several teachers who were present said they were told they could stay for the planned question and answer session or “vote with your feet,” take the vouchers and go shopping. The vouchers could be used for items that support employee or student learning.

The offer caused an exodus. Nearly everyone left the gathering and filled the aisles of the two bookstores.

Receipts produced by the County Office of Education in response to a public records request show some picked up classroom items, like hall passes, chalkboard erasers and English-learner flashcards. Others picked out items likely for their personal use, like a Bible and an atheism book, and even erotic literature.

Chocolate bars and Christian texts were later flagged as impermissible by staff and employee reimbursement was sought, according to the receipts and other documents. Reimbursement was not sought for the erotic literature.

The giveaway – which cost $25,000 – raised concerns internally that it could be seen as an illegal gift of public funds.

The timing of the event was also unusual: Employees were called to the town hall for a presentation and to discuss their concerns, but when the time came for questions, they were given an incentive to leave. No such offer had been made before.

County Office of Education spokeswoman Music Watson said the narrow timeframe for purchases that day was given in order to better screen purchases on-site.

The documents also reveal some financial controls at the agency were being examined long before a July 7 lawsuit was filed against County Superintendent Randy Ward alleging he took thousands of dollars in illegal pay.

The board placed Ward on paid leave July 14 after a lawsuit claimed he engaged in self-dealing to boost his own pay. A forensic audit is now under way.

Board President Gregg Robinson attended the town hall employee meeting and told Ward in a March 22 email he was “surprised” by the amount of money given out.

“I want to make sure that this was not an inappropriate use of public funds. I assume that this was checked out with lawyers before hand (sic), but it is important to avoid even the appearance of misuse of funds,” Robinson wrote. “So could you make inquiries into the legality of what happened just to make sure?”

Emails show Stacy Spector, executive director of the Juvenile Court and Community Schools program, told Ward, “No gift of public funds were used. All materials were specific to adult professional learning needs and/or student learning needs … We wanted to provide choice, within all legal parameters, for adults to purchase supplements (sic) texts and materials to support their learning or that of their students.”

Spector added that she believed the practice “passed the ‘smell test’ of common sense.”

Chief business officer Lora Duzyk, who is named alongside Ward in the recent taxpayer lawsuit, also addressed Robinson’s concerns.

“The method of purchase, while unorthodox, was set up for the individuals to make their specific selections with the understanding of what was an ‘appropriate purchase,’” Duzyk wrote in a March 24 email. “The items were to support classroom learning or professional development.”

“From an internal control perspective we are always concerned with fraud and misuse of county office assets, e.g. taxpayer funds,” and that’s why, she said, expenses were checked for appropriateness both onsite by management and through a review after the fact.

Before the event even took place, an employee organizing the event, called a “teacher party” in emails, also expressed concern when discussing whether to allow employees to pay for amounts rung up over $100.

“Our county office is very concerned with fund usage and we are always cautioned about anything that could appear to be a gift of public funds,” Kimberly Harrison, county office staffer, wrote in a March 4 email to a coworker and a Barnes & Noble employee. “If I were to guess, I doubt that our internal business office would be ok with this type of a scenario.”

They didn’t end up allowing teachers to pay for amounts over $100.

In May, Duzyk took another look at the materials for the event.

She wrote May 3 to Spector, “These vouchers don’t have any criteria on them telling employees what is an approved purchase other than no food.”

Though Spector told Duzyk they did discuss the need for purchases to “not be considered a gift of public funds,” she said staff would handle the event differently next time. Proposed changes include providing written purchase guidelines and having an administrator visually check every item purchased at the register.

Spector did not respond to several requests for comment.

County Office of Education teachers serve the county’s most troubled and vulnerable youth, including those who’ve been incarcerated, homeless, kicked out of traditional school or are pregnant.

In addition to providing schooling to at-risk youth, the County Office of Education provides financial oversight to all the school districts in the region. Districts must submit their budgets every year to show they can pay the bills and avoid insolvency.

Ward, who’s led the agency since June 2006, may be out of the office for a while.

The County Office of Education is seeking a new interim superintendent and put up a job posting last week with a start date “beginning immediately,” a length of work “to be determined.”

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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