Metro

Secrecy around schools audit draws concern

The Boston School Committee wants answers after Superintendent Tommy Chang (above) witheld critical findings from an IRS audit for at least five months.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file 2015
The Boston School Committee wants answers after Superintendent Tommy Chang (above) witheld critical findings from an IRS audit for at least five months.

For at least five months, Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang has been keeping critical findings of an IRS audit from the public and did not divulge any details to the School Committee until a reporter began asking questions last week.

Now, a School Committee member wants answers.

“We should have known earlier,” said Miren Uriarte, a School Committee member who said the board still had not received a copy of the audit Monday afternoon. “It makes you wonder: Are there other things like this we should know about? And that doesn’t do a lot for public trust in the district. That is my primary concern.”

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The Globe reported Monday that the IRS had found schools were using student activity accounts to pay employees stipends under the table, resulting in the nonpayment of state and federal taxes and Social Security benefits. The IRS also discovered that schools dipped into those accounts to pay for programs and other items unrelated to student activities.

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Chang shared those findings in a memo with principals and headmasters in June, but he never informed the School Committee, even though it oversees more than $1 billion in annual school funding.

The Globe learned of the audit this month after obtaining a copy of Chang’s June memo; the school department is still keeping the full audit secret and has refused to say how many schools, how many employees, or how much money is involved.

Student activity accounts, under state and federal rules, are supposed to support efforts to enhance students’ educational experiences outside the classroom, such as funding field trips and student clubs. Revenue is often generated through fund-raisers or proceeds from student events.

Michael O’Neill, chairman of the School Committee, said Chang misstepped in not sharing the information with his members, but said he is impressed with the actions Chang has taken so far to address the IRS’s findings.

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“Should the superintendent have told us at the time? Yes. Was it an oversight? Yes,” said O’Neill, who had not yet seen the audit. “But he has apologized. I’m confident the School Committee will accept his apology and move forward.”

Chang is in the process of tightening up the school system’s oversight of the accounts and provided principals and headmasters with new training on procedures.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he supported the steps Chang is taking to shore up oversight of spending from the student activity accounts.

“Boston Public Schools has an opportunity through this process to better educate school staff on the proper accounting practices for student activity accounts and implement a new structure that will ensure procedures are followed by all principals and teachers moving forward,” Walsh said in a statement. “BPS began this process last summer, and I’m confident Superintendent Chang will follow through on the recommendations provided.”

Peggy Wiesenberg, an education advocate, said Chang “showed extremely poor judgment” in not informing the committee.

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“I find it troubling,” she said. “What was the delay?”

Kenny Jervis, whose children attend Boston Latin School and the Perry K-8 in South Boston, said the decision to keep the IRS findings under wraps “is wrong in so many ways.”

He questioned whether Chang withheld the IRS findings because he was in the midst of being evaluated by the School Committee and may have also wanted to avoid an embarrassing disclosure while Walsh ran for reelection.

Chang did not respond to a request for comment.

State guidelines say school committees should have regular oversight of student activity accounts, including approving the creation of them and setting annual spending caps for them. The state recommends those steps to safeguard against misspending or abuse.

But as a practice, the Boston School Committee has not been examining spending from the student activity accounts for many years, even though at most meetings it routinely approves individual school field trips to foreign countries.

O’Neill said he spoke with the state’s acting education commissioner, Jeff Wulfson, Monday about the state’s guidelines and said the committee is likely to step up its oversight of student activity accounts.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.