Updated:DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - In the wake of a racketeering scandal which landed three school district employees in jail, the DeKalb School Board has now hired an internal auditor to watch over its business operations and prevent fraud.
"It's absolutely critical, especially in this kind of economy and environment," said Gary Babst, who spent 30 years working for General Motors. He's also a certified fraud investigator.
"It's the cop on the corner mentality. If I'm there and I'm visible, people are going to maybe rethink some of the things they'd otherwise do," Babst told Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.
His office is in a secure area, only accessible to his staff. He said the business side of the school district needs to have a zero tolerance policy for those who steal, especially in light of a recent construction contract scandal which landed the former superintendent and chief operating officer in jail.
"Sometimes when you look at an organization and you see problems with the people at the top, that can filter down through the organization depending on how long it's been in place," Babst said.
He's already started doing risk assessments and plans to bring in outside contractors to help out in the beginning. His staff will audit the bookkeeping at every school. Channel 2 Action News has reported on missing money at at least four schools in recent years. In April, a former bookkeeper from Lakeside High School was arrested for theft by taking in connection with nearly $40,000 missing since 2007. Many of the accused have indicated common practices of borrowing from accounts, or money sitting around.
"That's got to stop immediately," said Babst.
He said the district has the policies in place, but they haven't always been enforced. "I can't get it fraud free, and unfortunately that's just the reality of life. I can minimize it and we can certainly make examples of people that we catch," he added.
Babst reports directly to the school board, so he's just as free to investigate high ranking employees if need be.
Acting Superintendent Ramona Tyson used an academic committee to do a nationwide search to fill the auditor's job.
Just last week a new grand jury report commended that practice and other recent changes. It also praised Tyson's leadership saying she's gone "above and beyond the call of duty" since taking over in February.
"To recognize that the work has been on point and that we've been focused on positive changes for the district, it really felt good," said Tyson.
The report cites her integrity and selflessness, and substantial improvements throughout the district. It applauds a new whistleblower system established to encourage employees to report wrongdoing, even at the highest levels, without fear of retaliation.
"It really is a requirement if we are to restore the trust of not only the parents and the public, but I believe with the employees as well," said Tyson.
She's also focused on policies and procedures to help under performing schools, which will include tough decisions about dismissal of teachers who don't measure up. The grand jurors also asked about the handling of the ever-heated redistricting debate.
"It's hard, it's emotional, it's intimate. Parents, students and employees are connected to their school, but it's our jobs to make sure we are fiscally responsible," said Tyson.