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Another case of alleged small district theft
June 20, 2012, 05:00 AM
That was quite a letter sent out Friday evening by County Superintendent Anne Campbell after the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office announced it was charging former Portola Valley superintendent Tim Hanretty with embezzlement of public funds.

In the letter, Campbell writes how the San Mateo County Office of Education and the Portola Valley School District became aware of possible criminal activity when he was chief business official for the Woodside Elementary School District. After a forensic audit conducted by Hemming Morse, it was revealed that there was a possible misappropriation of solar project funds in Portola Valley, according to the letter. The charges include allegations Mr. Hanretty diverted funds from a Portola Valley School District solar project to pay for construction costs on a personal home renovation project.

The Office of Education is loaning up to $300,000 to the Portola Valley School District if needed to meet expenses for the current fiscal year. This came after the district’s Board of Trustees certified its 2011-12 second interim budget as "negative,” indicating the district will not be able to meet its expenses for the current year and the next two years.

Ms. Campbell offered the following statement about the Friday arrest:

"I am deeply saddened by the news of Mr. Hanretty’s arrest, but I appreciate the thorough investigation that has been conducted by Hemming Morse and by the District Attorney’s Office. My focus as county superintendent will continue to be on working together with Portola Valley officials to get the district’s budget back into balance. I know there is much still to do, but I am confident the Portola Valley governing board and Superintendent Carol Piraino are on the right path.  

I look forward to continuing to work with the Portola Valley School District in returning the budget to positive status.”  

This is a responsible, and necessary, path for the County Office of Education. However, it is entirely regrettable and perhaps even avoidable in the future. Campbell is the former superintendent of the Portola Valley School District and likely knows all too well how small the district office is and how much trust is placed in the superintendent. Countless school officials have spent their careers doing the best in trying situations and such allegations of embezzlement are extremely rare. Woodside and Portola are the smallest districts in the county. Portola has two schools, Woodside has one. Both serve affluent areas. There has been some amount of discussion over the years as to the need for such small school districts — and there is the balance between local control and the savings created through shared services, mergers and consolidation. This is a prime opportunity for the county Office of Education to further explore opportunities for additional oversight, shared services and potential mergers of school districts, particularly the small ones. Such efforts take time, and there have been small steps taken. Some services such as payroll could be provided by another district or even the county Office of Education. As initiatives are found that work, trust can be built, and then there could be expansion. In the meantime, the county Office of Education is exploring ways to reemphasize the need for financial oversight by elected boards of trustees. That’s a key step because elected officials are voted in to oversee staff.

This case is obviously an isolated incident, however, there have been many isolated incidents in recent months when it comes to smaller districts, particularly this one along with the Mosquito and Vector Control District and the Mid-Peninsula Water District — all the alleged victims of recent embezzlement. And there may be a tipping point when such incidents are no longer isolated, and require further action by those elected to oversee these districts. That time might be now.

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