PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - A former school administrator's decision to moonlight as a consultant created a firestorm in the Palm Beach County District and factored into the abrupt departure of Superintendent Art Johnson.
But former Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Hernandez argues the real reason he and Johnson came under fire was because of their efforts to reform the school district.
"It is clear that we have both paid a price for being educational 'change agents' that advocate for quality education for all students," Hernandez said in an email interview, his first since the release of an audit report this week that found he violated district leave policies.
On Thursday, the School District's Audit Committee accepted an audit, performed by the West Palm Beach office of RSM McGladrey Inc., without comment. The report will go to the School Board for review on Wednesday.
The audit found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Johnson, who resigned under pressure in February, or any current employees. In addition to the Hernandez incident, School Board members voiced concerns about Johnson's responsiveness to the board and his relationship with teachers.
Upon arriving in 2009, Hernandez implemented a curriculum that critics described as one-size-fits-all mandates that focused too heavily on testing. Johnson dropped the requirements in December 2009 after months of protests from parents and teachers, and Hernandez was reassigned.
After his reassignment and before his resignation took effect at the end of the school year, Hernandez did consulting work for a Memphis school district while receiving his $180,000-a-year district salary.
He left when his contract expired in June 2010 and now heads a consulting firm in Miami Lakes.
The audit found that Hernandez improperly used sick days for five days when he worked in Memphis and failed to request any type of leave for three days. Auditors recommended he reimburse the district the $1,709 in salary he received for those three days.
Hernandez said he thought he properly requested the days off and attributed the discrepancies to "clerical errors." He said he plans to immediately reimburse the district.
The audit was initiated after complaints by four parents, who started digging into district records. Some attended Thursday's meeting, voicing concerns that the audit didn't adequately address all the problems in the district.
One concern was that six months of Hernandez's e-mails were found to be missing, leading them to allege a possible cover-up. Auditors say they could not find evidence that the district violated any records retention requirements, because the requirements vary based on the nature of the e-mails.
"I believe Jeffrey Hernandez stole money from the district when he cashed the checks, and I think there's evidence of a conspiracy to commit crimes, and the superintendent covered up the fact," said Peter Kimball, one of the four parents who filed complaints.
Hernandez, who did not attend the meeting, disputed that argument and said the audit backs him up.
"I have always maintained that our team conducted the work on behalf of the School District of Palm Beach County with the utmost integrity, and with nothing but a desire to enrich the lives of students and to ensure their future success. I have always operated with full transparency with one goal in mind: to help the students in the district succeed."
Audit committee member Gregory Daniel, who did not attend the meeting, sent an email saying he found the results "very troubling" and suggested that the audit look more into the missing and altered records.
In an April 19 letter to district Auditor Lung Chiu, Hernandez wrote that he acknowledged the alteration of some leave forms for accuracy purposes.
"Any reasonably prudent person would conclude that these alterations were made in an attempt to cover the original timeline of the events," Daniel wrote.
Acting Superintendent Bill Malone said the district is implementing new procedures to avoid some of the issues identified in the audit, including using a Google email and calendar system that will properly retain district records even after employees leave.
Hernandez downplayed suggestions he made in the past that he's considering filing legal action against the district.
"My desire is to simply move forward with my passion of facilitating a world-class education for all children," he said. "I am pleased to have this behind me."
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