Poway Unified leaders are tightening the purse strings on vacation payouts and credit card charges – expenses the former superintendent was accused of exploiting.

Spurred by forensic audit findings related to the superintendent’s pay, auditors with El Cajon accounting firm Wilkinson Hadley King and Co. took a broader look at those two areas of concern and found “The District has adopted a practice of regularly paying out vacation balances to employees based upon request.”

The district’s vacation liability has grown to $5.6 million and, “It appears that employees are not taking vacation, but rather saving the vacation days and using it as a ‘bonus’ instead,” auditors wrote Nov. 30.

District staff responded saying they’d need to bargain with some union groups to make changes, but would create a plan to address excess vacation balances for management employees and encourage vacations. Staff will also bring the school board new contract language for senior administrators that specifies vacation accrual and cash out options.

Prior auditors found former superintendent John Collins’ contract only granted permission to cash out vacation upon departure from the job, but he repeatedly cashed out vacation time anyway and once took more than he had accrued.

Before being unceremoniously dismissed in July, Collins was also flagged for using the district credit card for personal expenses, like family airline travel.

Wilkinson Hadley King and Co. auditors looked at the district’s 156 purchase cards and found they allow $813,000 in spending each month, or $9.75 million a year. Employees charged $1.9 million last year.

“The District is exposed to risk of inappropriate expenditures, bypassing of bid process, exceeding budget allowances through purchase card transaction,” according to the firm. Auditors blamed a lack of enforcement of the monitoring system that is supposed to make sure expenses are allowed and documented, bid requirements are met and funds are budgeted to pay for card purchases.

Employees running preschool and before- and after-school programs charged more than $600,000 to the cards last year, which included snacks for 5,300 students. Those snacks will now be bought through the food and nutrition department and director approval is now required for charges over $50.

Sixteen purchase cards were recently canceled and some monthly credit spending limits were reduced by 40 percent, district officials told auditors.

School board President Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff said she was pleased to see staff tightening credit card use and vacation payouts.

“This is important. This is a priority for the board,” O’Connor-Ratcliff said at the Dec. 13 board meeting. “I think I probably speak for everybody on the board when I say we need to be kept up to date on these corrective actions so abuses aren’t going to happen again. … So, keep going. Get aggressive. Do more.”

More introspection is on the way.

Board members this month approved up to $50,000 for an internal controls audit by accounting firm Moss Adams that will start after the New Year, and up to $41,000 for the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team to review the special education program, which serves about 11 percent of the 35,900-student district.

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

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