School superintendents investigated

Tuesday, December 4th 2007, 11:55 am
By: News 9

School superintendents are supposed to be leaders in the community. They should be models of honesty who watch over the children of the district and provide a good example for them. Instead, a number of them are abusing their power and providing terrible examples.

Some local superintendents have recently been caught doing some creative accounting. Marble City, Lost City, Kenta and Wanette school superintendents and administrators are all being investigated for misappropriating funds. And most small schools don't have the resources to provide the checks and balances needed to ensure this kind of theft doesn't happen again.

State auditor McMahan does about 15 investigations into school districts' finances each year. Investigation requests often come from district attorneys, who were tipped off by school administrators.

"We don't like to come in and play gotcha," said Jeff McMahan, Oklahoma's state auditor. "It's disappointing to us, it's disheartening."

One superintendent has even admitted to stealing school money for his own personal gain and yet he still remains in place as superintendent.

"I thought it was strange after Mr. Couch admitted to taking 100-thousand dollars from the school, the president of the school board wants to pay $250,000 to buy out a contract they didn't even have in their possession," said Ellen McClendon, retired teacher of Marble City Public Schools at a local school meeting with board members and former teachers.

Mr. Couch is Larry Couch, Marble City's superintendent. He was recently charged on a felony count of embezzling $100,000 of public money. And according to a probable cause affidavit, Couch even admitted to stealing the money. Yet, Couch remains on the job, refusing to leave, unless the remainder of his $87,000-annual-salary contract is paid out. Couch did not attend the latest school meeting, because he's out on paid medical leave right now.

Two of the Marble City school board members, Mary Cooksey and Tim Farris, openly support Couch.

"I was really shocked that this was going on," said Raymond Bolin, the third Marble City school board member. "He took the money from kids and he bought land that he doesn't really need."

Marble City is not alone. While Couch may be an extreme case, other school districts are also feeling the pinch from their superintendents. According to state auditor Jeff McMahan, Lost City School District administrators altered documents to obtain federal grant money and paid money to teachers who should not have received the extra funds. Kenta school officials spent money in excess of their budget and Wanette School District administrators misappropriated at least $60,000 in school funds.

"I'm somewhat concerned about someone who confesses to embezzling $100,000 and remains to stay school superintendent. Because from an auditor standpoint, we start to wonder what records are going to disappear," said the state auditor.

Wanette Public Schools'  newly appointed superintendent, Rick Riggs, had to cut $400,000 from the budget along with seven staff members-proof the damage from the previous administration still lingers.

"You're still faced with trying to make things right for one thing; and you have to go back and look at procedures in place so these things don't happen again," Riggs said.

Now the schools' accounting procedures include an open door and open records policy.

"Everybody looks at every contract; everybody signs off on every contract," said Riggs.

Originally Aired: 11-12-2007