S.D.-area school officials lose jobs after raiding student extracurricular accounts

One of the most distressing calls we get on the Student Press Law Center’s hotline is some variation of this one: “We came back from summer break and discovered that all the money in our yearbook account is gone, and nobody will tell us where it went.”

Cash-strapped schools undoubtedly are tempted by any pot of money, even one that is earmarked for a student organization, in their desperation to pay the bills. Raiding the yearbook — or the choir, the sports teams, the drama club — may seem justified when a principal is trying to keep the electricity on and avoid laying off employees.

But public money, especially once it’s budgeted by the local board of education, can’t just be shifted around at the whim of the principal. That’s an invitation for, at best, sloppy bookkeeping — and at worst, thievery.

For an object lesson in the consequences of robbing Rachel to pay Paul, look no further than Chula Vista’s Sweetwater Union High School.

In a scheme worthy of Sue Sylvester, Sweetwater Union administrators siphoned the accounts of the drama club, mariachi band, yearbook and other extracurricular accounts to find money for their own pet projects, including gifts and lunches for employees, according to an Oct. 3 report on the SignOnSanDiego.com news site. The school’s two top administrators agreed to resign over the summer after the diversion of funds came to light.

This outcome should reassure students and advisers elsewhere that, yes, taking money from the newspaper or yearbook to pay other bills is wrong, and there is something the victims can do about it.

If the school is public, start with an open-records request submitted by student editors (not the adviser) for all records of transactions in and out of the publication’s account. If checks are being written from the account or transfers made, then that will leave a trail of bank records, which a public school must make available for inspection on request.

If there is no harmless explanation for why money is missing, and it is not immediately restored when discovered, then the next step is a conversation with the school district’s chief financial officer, to find out who has the authority to reallocate money between school accounts. If a transfer was made without proper district-level approval, then the principal may be joining Sweetwater Union’s Diego Ochoa and Abram Jimenez on the unemployment line.

Finally, if money is being diverted from its intended use, that is an issue for editors to take up with the school system’s auditors — and maybe with state-level investigators, such as an inspector general’s office in the state Department of Education.

It is especially frustrating to student media organizations to lose money that they themselves helped raise, by selling advertising and throwing fundraisers. But there are remedies, and students should not be intimidated about using them.