As the Boston school district attempts to bring in more donations to beef up its sports programs, its athletics department is being targeted by three investigations into potential misspending of funds related to the purchase of equipment and supplies.
The exact nature of the investigations — which are being conducted by Boston police, the Massachusetts inspector general’s office, and the Boston Finance Commission — remains unclear.
The investigating agencies declined to share details, and the School Department denied a Globe public records request for a copy of an audit of spending on athletics, saying it was not finished and could not be shared anyway because of “an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”
“We are actively supporting the ongoing investigation in every way possible,” Lee McGuire, spokesman for the Boston public schools, wrote in an e-mail. The School Department has also hired an external auditor to gauge the full extent of the problem.
Long-considered underfunded and understaffed, the athletics department operates out of White Stadium in Jamaica Plain with a staff of four administrators and one secretary. It oversees about $3.1 million in spending.
The city has been aggressively trying to raise the profile of its athletics program after a Globe series four years ago that detailed deep-rooted inadequacies in equipment, facilities, coaching, and academic eligibility in the city’s high school sports programs.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino subsequently teamed up with Suffolk Construction’s Red & Blue Foundation to create a multimillion-dollar charitable organization to enhance opportunities for student athletes.
The organization, known as the Boston Scholar Athlete Program, declined to comment on the investigations, but said in a statement, “We will continue to support and serve our student athletes in the same way we have over the last four years.”
The potential misspending apparently first came to the School Department’s attention in April, prompting John McDonough, then chief financial officer, to notify authorities. McDonough, who is now interim superintendent, also alerted headmasters, principals, and department heads about the problem in a memorandum May 16, entitled “expectations regarding the purchase, receipt, and payment for goods and services.
“Within the last few weeks we became aware of what appear to be systemic issues in the athletics department around the ordering and procurement of supplies that did not follow our financial protocols,” he wrote in the memo, which was obtained by the Globe. “Out of an abundance of caution and because we wish to be transparent and accountable we have informed the appropriate authorities, as well as the Boston Finance Commission.”
He reminded school leaders about the School Department’s guidelines and procedures for purchases, pointing out that equipment and supplies cannot be ordered or delivered without getting a purchase order, that the superintendent is the only one who can sign a contract, and that information entered into the department’s online expense system must be accurate.
Since the investigation began this spring, the Boston public schools have started to experience a turnover in staff in the athletics department. William Fitzgerald, the equipment manager, resigned May 10, six days before McDonough issued his memo to staff on the athletics issues. Kenneth Still, athletic director, will retire in October.
McGuire declined to say whether Fitzgerald’s retirement was tied to the department’s financial issues. Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment.
Still said in a telephone interview Wednesday there was no connection between the investigations and his retirement, which he said has been in the works for a year. He referred all questions about the investigations to the School Department’s communications office.
Samuel Tyler— president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits — said he was aware of the investigations, but had only a vague description of the wrongdoing, such as money potentially being used for purposes other than intended. He said school officials appeared to have taken appropriate steps to fully understand the problem and prevent it from recurring.
But he added, “We are concerned about any situation where limited dollars are used for purposes they are not intended.”
Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe by the Boston School Department, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the reason William Fitzgerald left his position as equipment manager for the athletics department. He resigned.