08-09-2022  1:03 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
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NORTHWEST NEWS

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Lisa Loving and Brian Stimson of The Skanner News

Jefferson High School Principal Cynthia Harris and school business manager Reis Wilbanks were put on paid leave from their jobs Thursday, May 20, and a Portland Public Schools spokesman says he can't comment on why.
However the district also on May 20 received a critical audit on the school's student activity funds that has prompted a complete review of all the school's finances, spokesman Matt Shelby said this morning.
"I can't link Cynthia's leave with this financial audit," he said. "I can't do that."

 

Cynthia Harris at the 2009 Jefferson High School Junior/Senior Prom, which was sponsored by CH2M


Shelby said student finance audits are done every year for every school in the district. He said enough shortcomings were found in Jefferson's audit that officials decided on the wider examination. It was the only school in the district that triggered a further investigation, Shelby said.
On March 3, The Skanner News reporter Brian Stimson was ejected by Harris from a parent meeting concerning use of funds for school athletics. District officials said at the time that open meetings laws did not apply to that sort of gathering.
"In all honesty, for people who have followed this, I don't think this comes as much of a surprise that we're doing this review," Shelby said Friday morning.
Deputy Superintendent Toni Hunter, the former principal of Grant High School, has been put in charge of Jefferson in the meantime.


History of Mismanagement


Issues concerning Harris' management have bubbled up since 2008, the year Jefferson's much-vaunted "small academy" organizational structure imploded and Mayor Tom Potter held "listening sessions" for students, families and teachers at the school to help propel reforms.
Jefferson students approached The Skanner News with allegations of financial improprieties in late 2008. The students, including then-junior Sydney Breazile, said that teens who complained about the school's management were offered gifts and shopping trips by Reis.
"She offerd to take the 3 of us girls out for pedicures and a shopping trip to nordstrom," Breazile texted Friday morning in a message to The Skanner News from her current post with the U.S. Navy, on the USS Roosevelt, based in Norfolk, Va. "The lady in charge of alumni association took over pheobes job and did not raise money for prom through out the year. There was nothing for us seniors to do."
"There has not been clarity about who owns decisions," said a special report on the state of Jefferson conducted in 2008 by then-district charter school director Cliff Brush.
"This contributed to a lack of clarity about management relationships between the principal and academy administrators. District supports have not been provided systematically. As a result, there has not been clarity for the school's principal and academy administrators about their discretionary authorities and about which decisions the district must approve."
This spring, parents connected to the athletic department organized to get answers regarding what they saw as disparities in the funding between less successful athletic teams and the champion basketball team for basic needs like sack lunches and buses to far-away games.
According to Cliff Pfenning, a reporter for www.oregonsports.com and a Jefferson parent who attended the meeting Harris barred The Skanner News from attending, parents alleged that football coaches were not reimbursed by the school for at least two out of town trips. The Oregon School Activities Association typically reimburses schools for out of town sporting events.
Athletic Director Mitch Whitehurst said the coaches are reimbursed at the end of the season. "They all got to the coaches," he told The Skanner News.
Whitehurst said he didn't know where the allegations were coming from, other than parents associated with the football program.
Jefferson boys' basketball this year won their third state title in a row.

Laundry List of Irregularities

The Jefferson student fund audit released May 20, conducted by accountant Amoy D. Williamson, specifically pointed to poor practices "at the top" of school management.
"The audit revealed a lack of internal controls over the operation of the Student Body Funds and an inconsistent tone at the top which resulted in an override of established policies and procedures without written justification," Williamson wrote.
The audit found that Harris had placed more than $23,000 from two grants -- Portland Opera Presents and the Jubitz Family Foundation -- into her "discretionary account" when those funds should have been placed into separate accounts and their use strictly tracked to make sure the money was spent in accordance to the restrictions of the grants.
"The principals claims that although the funds were placed in her discretionary account, that the spending was appropriate to the donation," the audit says.
"The Accounting and Payroll Services Department is requesting that the principal provide a report of all the disbursements relating to the two donations mentioned above to assure that the expenses were in accordance with the grantors' request."
Further, the audit found $7,590 in "reimbursements" that did not include receipts or "adequate supporting documentation."
Another area of financial irregularity reported in the audit was an array of "personal service contracts" entered into by Harris that violated requirements, including the payment of $15,000 to a private mentoring program before any contract was signed.
The audit also outlines Harris and Wilbanks' improper handling of receipts; improper handling of cash receipts; improper authorization and approvals for reimbursement; and untimely requests for expense reimbursement.
Shelby said he can't release any further details of the irregularities until the full financial audit is complete.

 

 

Read these other reports on the Jefferson High School financial situation by The Skanner News staff:

 

The Skanner Reporter Ejected from Jefferson High School Meeting , March 4, 2010

Jefferson's Boys' Academy to Close , Nov. 13, 2008

Read our Messenger-Award winning series comparing Rainier High School in Seattle and Jefferson High School in Portland:

A Tale of Two Urban Schools, Part 1 , May 29, 2008

As Jefferson Struggles, Rainier Turns the Tide, June 5, 2008

 

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