Chicago Public Schools employees “stole or misappropriated” thousands of dollars worth of school-purchased gift cards that were intended to be used as incentives for students and families, according to an annual report from the district’s inspector general.
In one case, a principal of a school for vulnerable students stole presents of at least “$500 in gift cards that were donated to the students and were intended to help address their specialized needs,” Inspector General Nicholas Schuler’s office found. The same principal gave to an acquaintance 30 new backpacks filled with school supplies that had been donated, according to Schuler.
The misuse of gift cards was among a long list of alleged wrongdoing by teachers, principals and district families in the IG’s annual report, which was released Wednesday. Among other findings of the report, which does not identify schools or employees by name:
• An elementary school principal spent at least $22,000 in school funds for personal purchases at Costco and Apple stores.
• A district agricultural program employee used his meat processing company to sell eggs produced at the school for a profit.
• A principal used school funds to fund a “teachers’ lunch club” featuring lobster, shrimp and steaks.
• Families continued to use false addresses to get their children into highly competitive selective-enrollment programs.
The report covers investigations completed between July 2016 and the end of last June. It also summarized investigations that led to the ouster of district CEO Forrest Claypool, who resigned in December after being accused of trying to undermine an ethics investigation; found irregularities at a high school program for Cook County Jail inmates; and questioned the ability of blacklisted CPS employees to find work at independently operated district schools.
But a primary focus of this year’s report was the “wasteful” practice of purchasing gift cards that are intended to be used as incentives for students and families. The findings prompted the IG to demand changes in how the district supervises the widespread practice of buying gift or cash cards.
Dozens of CPS schools, offices and departments spent slightly more than $250,000 on 7,462 gift or cash cards between January 2013 and December 2016, according to Schuler’s office. Employees at five schools examined by the IG used some of those cards to make more than $10,200 in “personal purchases,” Schuler said.
According to the report, a principal and clerk at a program for vulnerable students used cards to spend more than $3,000 on items that “at best, were only somewhat related to educational purposes or, at worst, were clearly for personal reasons.” That included wedding favors, several purchases from an Iowa casino and “repeated expenditures at restaurants.”
Schuler said his office also discovered the school’s principal and other employees stole hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards that were donated to students, as well as hundreds of dollars in school funds. The former employees also tried to intimidate a teacher at the school into lying to investigators, Schuler said.
The principal and clerk resigned in light of the investigation, Schuler said. Two additional employees were fired.
Staff members at four other buildings used school-purchased gift cards to pay for a range of expenses that included telephone bills, car detailing at a BMW dealership, Kmart layaway payments and meals.
Schools sometimes used the gift cards after the district banned petty cash funds and stopped giving schools credit cards for some purchases, Schuler’s office found.
In addition to the misuse of the gift cards, Schuler criticized the extra expense the district incurs because of the processing and service fees.
Schuler’s office asked the Chicago Board of Education to create a new policy that specifies when schools can use gift cards, sets out how the cards would be tracked and limits their purchase to one competitively selected vendor. CPS on Wednesday said it was developing a broader policy to govern the purchase and use of gift cards.
During the year covered by the report, the inspector general’s office received 1,457 complaints. Schuler said his team opened investigations into 276 cases, a low rate that has previously been blamed on the IG’s limited resources compared to the sheer size of the school district’s workforce and budget.
Those investigations included more routine examinations of residency cases, purchasing or improper uses of sick time.
One less-routine case concerned an employee of a high school program that specializes in agricultural sciences. Schuler’s office concluded the employee violated district ethics codes by using his meat processing company to sell the school $800 worth of frozen turkeys, and purchase eggs produced at the school before selling them for a profit of roughly $130.
Also, the employee donated two mares to a school horse breeding program but was eligible to receive breeder’s awards if horses foaled at the school eventually won races.
CPS said the employee and two other members of the school’s staff accused in this case were reprimanded, and the meat processing company was barred from doing any additional business with the district.
Serious theft cases Schuler summarized included a one in which an elementary school principal allegedly stole at least $22,461 of school funds over a four-year period to purchase large amounts of alcohol, food and high-end electronics for his and his family’s personal use.
That principal left the district before any discipline could be carried out, though Schuler said the matter was referred to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
In a statement, CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the district “has worked to address the incidents outlined in the report, and we are reviewing the Inspector General’s recommendations to determine whether they will strengthen district operations and prevent misconduct.”
Chicago inspector finds school employees ‘stole’ gift cards From ABC eyewitness News
An inspector general has found several Chicago Public Schools employees “stole or misappropriated” thousands of dollars in gift cards set aside as incentives for students and families.
Inspector General Nicholas Schuler noted the finding in a 75-page report released Wednesday showing other alleged wrongdoing including an elementary school principal spending over $20,000 in school funds for personal shopping and families using false addresses to get children into competitive schools.
READ: INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT
The report doesn’t identify schools or employees by name. It covers investigations between July 2016 and last June.
In another case a principal used school money to pay for a “teachers’ lunch club” with lobster and steaks.
Schuler says two employees resigned and two others were fired after investigations.
School officials say the district is addressing issues raised in the report.
In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said, in part: “With all of the resources that our students and their families lack, both inside of the classroom and in their own communities, it’s extremely disappointing to witness such selfishness coming from school administrators and Central Office.”
WLS-TV contributed to this report.