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Originally published April 25, 2012 at 10:27 PM | Page modified April 26, 2012 at 10:30 PM

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Seattle principal's handling of funds probed

The investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found $30,000 in unexplained cash withdrawals from an unauthorized school bank account and sloppy record-keeping of that account. Also, it found that ElDoris Turner accepted payments from a group using the school gym and did not turn the money over to the district.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Seattle police are investigating the possible misuse of school funds by a former principal and a parent coordinator at Van Asselt Elementary School.

Former Principal ElDoris Turner retired March 16, two days after being placed on administrative leave following the release of an ethics investigation that found a "gross waste of public funds."

A parent coordinator, Ramona Fuentes, was fired Tuesday, according to the school district.

The investigation, conducted by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, found $30,000 in unexplained cash withdrawals from an unauthorized school bank account and sloppy record-keeping. In addition, the investigation found that Turner accepted payments from a group using the school gym and did not turn the money over to the district, as was required.

The account, maintained by Turner and Fuentes, held proceeds from school fundraisers. The withdrawals were made over an 18-month period, according to the investigation.

The investigation could not determine how the money was used, but "could not rule out the possibility that some of these funds were converted to personal use," the report said.

Meanwhile, Turner accepted money for use of the gym from a private business run by a school-district employee — between $100 and $800 month — and was unable to fully document where the money went, the investigation found.

The investigative report, completed March 5 but not publicly announced, was obtained Wednesday after a public-records request by The Seattle Times.

Turner and Fuentes could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Investigators said Fuentes told them she did not take money for personal use.

Turner, 63, had more than 40 years of experience in Seattle Public Schools. She was in her sixth year as principal at Van Asselt, a South Beacon Hill school, with many students from low-income families.

Turner and Fuentes provided some documentation to investigators about cash being used to pay for school purposes, including ice-cream cups for an end-of-the-year party.

But the 15-page report said neither offered "credible, documented justification for the large amount of cash that was withdrawn from the Account between January 2009 and June 2011."

The Seattle Police Department is investigating, said school-district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers. Police would not release any information Wednesday.

Sherry Carr, chairwoman of the Seattle School Board's Audit and Finance Committee, called the situation "completely unacceptable."

Carr credited recent district reforms for helping to bring the potential misuse of funds to light. Last year, after a financial scandal, the district placed a new emphasis on encouraging school employees to report suspicious behavior. It also enlisted the city's ethics commission to investigate complaints.

"What I see here is evidence that our programs are working," Carr said. "We sent a very clear message to our employees that we wanted them to speak up. Someone did that."

Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield couldn't be reached for comment.

Cash withdrawals

The probe started last spring after some Van Asselt parents and teachers, interested in establishing a Parent Teacher Student Association, asked how much money the school raised through fundraisers, and how the money was spent, according to the city investigation.

Turner's responses did not satisfy the group.

Investigators said parents relayed concerns about the use of cash at the school. Some said they'd seen a bag of money in a safe at the office, Fuentes counting cash at her desk and a shoebox of money in Turner's office.

Some school staff members reported worrying about where money from raffles and other fundraisers had gone.

A district audit concluded all the checks written on the account appeared to have been for school purposes. Cash withdrawals, however, raised more questions.

"Turner and Fuentes kept terrible records of the money that flowed into and out of the Account," the investigation found.

While it was Fuentes' job to keep records, she described herself as disorganized and forgetful and told investigators she had serious health and money issues.

Turner and Fuentes told investigators it was likely some financial records were lost when the school moved into a new building at the start of the 2009-2010 school year.

Gym use

In another finding, the investigation faulted Turner for allowing the Van Asselt gym to be used for profit without rent payments going to the district.

A school-district employee ran a business that used the gym for youth-basketball tournaments.

The employee said he charged $3 to $5 at the door for the tournaments and sold concessions.

The employee told investigators his business was a nonprofit, but they determined it was not registered as one with the state.

Turner did not seem to think that gym access was a big issue, according to the investigation. She told investigators that white teachers wanted to stop the employee from using the gym because he is a black man.

The employee could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The Seattle Times is not naming him because the investigation did not fault him for violations.

This investigation was one of the first since the city commission took over school-district ethics probes after last year's scandal involving the district's minority-business program.

A state audit found that the program awarded $1.8 million in contracts with questionable or no public benefit.

In December, former program director Silas Potter pleaded not guilty to theft of $250,000 of those funds.

News researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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