CPS employees who stole gift cards should lose license, face other consequenses, DuPage education rep says
Chicago Public Schools employees who allegedly "stole or misappropriated" school-purchased gift cards intended for students and families should face serious consequences, DuPage County Regional Schools Superintendent Darlene J. Ruscitti said during a recent interview.
"Those accused of fraud should lose their license in addition to the legal consequence," Ruscitti told the DuPage Policy Journal.
DuPage County's schools form a regional office of education (ROE) and the CPS gift card scandal was discussed with the finance department shortly after a report was published revealing the alleged fraud, Ruscitti said. "We have really good controls in place," Ruscitti said.
"As an ROE we are audited through auditor general's office and do not hire our own auditor," Ruscitti said. "However, I think CPS is a wake-up call that people have flaws and a few bad apples are out there. Review of processes has to be done on a regular basis. I also think people forget where the dollars come from and that it is their duty to protect the taxpayer dollars. I also think we have to remember there are many teachers everywhere who take money out of own pocket to help students."
Ruscitti, the first woman elected DuPage County regional schools superintendent since the office was established in 1854, previously ran for the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Illinois' 8th Congressional District but withdrew in December 2011. Later that month, she was appointed co-chair of the Illinois Republican Party's statewide Victory Program and the following spring, she was elected chairman of the DuPage County Republican Party.
Over three years, CPS employees spent more than $250,000 on approximately 7,500 gift cards, some of which allegedly were used as a means to circumvent the district's no-petty-cash policy, according to a recent report. Some cards were issued by Target, iTunes and other retailers as family incentives while others were for "large dollar amount" Visa, MasterCard or American Express gift cards, the report said.
"CPS personnel stole or misappropriated a portion of these gift cards," the report said. "As such, the OIG has not only recommended administrative discipline, but also referred these cases to the Cook County state's attorney's office for additional investigation and possible criminal prosecution."
The report was released Jan. 1 by the Office of the Inspector General (IOG) of Chicago Public Schools as part of its 75-page annual report for fiscal 2017 in the section titled "Theft at CPS Involving Gift Cards Used as Petty Cash." The annual report described almost 1,500 complaints about alleged misconduct, waste, fraud and financial mismanagement during fiscal 2017, but only a fraction of those complaints could be investigated.
Gift cards have been purchased for DuPage County school students and their families, but it was done only recently. The total amount was small and not used in the way as the cards in Chicago's school district, Ruscitti said. "We purchased the cards and distributed them at a holiday party for students," she said.
"The total amount is under $1,000. We do not use any taxpayer dollars as we ask for donations from our staff at the ROE," she said. "The dollars are placed in a 501(c)(3). We log the donations, send thank-you notes to recognize individuals who donated and then purchase gift certificates to be distributed to students at a party. We keep the gift certificate receipts with the identifier number."
Unlike the CPS gift cards, distribution of the gift cards in DuPage County was based more on need and replaced a previous procedure that had run into problems, Ruscitti said, referring to the approximately 40 children in that school system's alternative school. "Most of these children are low socioeconomic status," she said.
"We have never used gift cards for students until this (school)year. In the past, we purchased food for students and their families at Christmas. Outright purchase of food was awkward because we didn't know what people like so we went to Aldi gift certificates," Ruscitti said.
Aldi also works with DuPage schools to make sure the gift cards are not wasted, Ruscitti said. "Overall our purchase is small and transparent as each student gets a card and is accounted," she said.
The report about stolen or misappropriated gift cards intended as incentives for CPS students and their families is disturbing, Ruscitti said. "It is unthinkable that any adult would take anything away from a student in need," she said. "It is so unfortunate and despicable that something like this would happen."