Irons in the Fire

Critical audits zero in on Vashon's storied basketball program

On the opening day of school last year, Verona Bowers was forced to sign her first check as the new principal of Vashon High School. She had no idea how much money — if any — the school had in its bank account.

"I need your assistance because I do not want to have to sign another emergency check until the internal audit that I was promised takes place," she wrote that day in a frantic letter to then-superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools Floyd Crues. "Please do not put me in a situation that I could be liable for previous transactions."

It turned out, Bowers later learned, that the school's checking account was $151.02 in the red.

According to Bowers, her predecessor, the legendary basketball coach Floyd Irons, never filed a single financial record with the district for the entire 2003-04 school year.

From school bake sales to algebra competitions, from field trips to athletic tournaments, money changes hands all the time, and St. Louis principals and their respective bookkeepers are responsible for keeping detailed records and depositing cash receipts within 24 hours.

The district routinely performs a compliance audit before a new principal takes charge but did not do so when Irons took over after Vashon's long-time principal, Dorothy Ludgood, died in March 2003.

Last fall, Crues instructed the district's fiscal control director, Linda McKnight, to examine Vashon's books from July 2001 through August 2004. McKnight completed her audit last December. After reviewing the findings, chief financial officer Harry Rich penned a concerned memo to then-superintendent Pamela Randall Hughes.

"Because of the very poor state of their records and procedures," wrote Rich, "it is not possible to determine accurately the magnitude of the problems and whether there was any illegal personal gain that occurred."

Rich recommended to Hughes that the matter be turned over to the office of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney or someone else with more "sleuthing skills" than the district possessed. Instead, the district's general counsel, Lashly & Baer, proceeded to enlist the St. Louis accounting firm Brown Smith Wallace to provide an independent review.

Brown Smith Wallace forwarded its results to the district on September 15, but school-board members never received the audit — or Linda McKnight's findings — until a closed-door meeting last week.

In fact, the long-awaited reports only came to light because school-board member Veronica O'Brien e-mailed Superintendent Creg Williams on November 5, demanding to see the documents by 4 p.m. on November 7.

"I've been asking for a year, wanting to know the status of the audits," explains O'Brien. "The district would never give them to me."

The auditors' critical conclusion: Vashon High School used faulty accounting practices, frequently violated district fiscal policies between 2001 and 2004, and mismanaged thousands of dollars.

Other findings include:

Floyd Irons failed to make full and accurate disclosures and passed off blame to subordinates. In one instance, Irons told Linda McKnight that an expense report for a basketball players' reception, dated December 2003, was authorized by Dorothy Ludgood — deceased nine months by that time.

Vashon principals Ludgood and Irons, without school-board authorization, purchased a $50,000 scoreboard, $106,002 worth of athletic uniforms, a $6,995 piano and a $5,994 gymnasium floor.

Demetrious Johnson, a former professional football player and confidant of Irons, organized a Super Bowl party and fundraiser for the basketball team at the Adam's Mark Hotel. Johnson did not get district approval, nor did he turn over the event's proceeds to the school. Irons never asked permission to host the fundraiser, as required by district policy.

Nike has a contract with Floyd Irons to provide uniforms and equipment to the boys' basketball team, but Vashon made its own "significant similar purchases" of apparel and equipment in 2003 and 2004, according to the audit. ("The last time we had new uniforms through the school was 2000 or 2001," Irons says. "We've gotten new uniforms since then, but not through the school." Irons adds that he purchased the uniforms: "I came up with the money.")

Auditors reported dozens of "questionable expenses," including CD players, radios and TVs used as Christmas presents.

Jeannette Franks, Vashon's bookkeeper, issued $8,000 in travel advances without ever collecting receipts after the trips. Some of the money funded basketball travel. Irons told auditors he lost receipts in the process of moving his office.

Inspectors found no paperwork proving that cash proceeds from ticket sales for non-league basketball games and other events were ever deposited.

Irons maintains he's done nothing illegal. "I don't see why my name is being associated with anything. I was only the principal for one year."

School-board member Ron Jackson says he's concerned by the findings of the internal and external audits, "but the matter will be investigated."

An employee accused of wrongdoing is typically suspended and brought for a formal hearing before the board, notes school-board member Bill Purdy. "I have a lot of respect for Floyd Irons, but I think these swirling allegations deserve an answer. This matter can't just hang out there," Purdy adds.

Superintendent Williams did not return calls for comment. School attorney Dirk DeYong, of Lashly & Baer, would not disclose whether Williams will take any action on the audits.

Coach Irons has led the Vashon Wolverines to nine state-championship victories and has compiled a win-loss record of 824-147 during his 33 years at the school. Last year USA Today ranked Vashon the No. 1 boys' basketball team in the nation.

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