Ohio board member’s tough questions helped convict a former employee who stole $3.4 million from the district

July 12, 2013

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By Steve Gunn
EAGnews.org

CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS, Ohio – We’d like to take a moment to salute all those rebellious school board members who insist on asking tough questions and demanding adequate answers, even when their colleagues and school administrators tell them they’re overstepping their bounds.

holly thacker mainSometimes these abrasive board members turn out to be taxpayers’ best friends.

Such is the case with Dr. Holly Thacker, a member of the Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio school board.  She became suspicious of the district’s technology director several years ago after an audit revealed that the district had “excessive expenditures” for technology products and services.

Other officials in the district encouraged her to back off and ignore the situation, according to Thacker. But she shared her concerns with law enforcement personnel, who eventually started an investigation and discovered a massive embezzlement scheme that cost the district $3.4 million.

Joseph Palazzo, 31, the district’s former technology director, was sentenced this week to 11 years and four months in prison for repeated theft, according to Cleveland.com. A judge also ordered Palazzo to eventually repay the district for its losses, if he ever earns that much money.

According to the news report, “Palazzo and others in the conspiracy set up shell corporations and then used fake invoices to make it appear the district was buying technology hardware, software and services from them. Palazzo also bought electronic items such as televisions and changed the invoices to make it seem as if they were items like digital microscopes to be used in classrooms; then he sold the goods at a discount.”

If school administrators and other board members had their way, the scheme may never have been uncovered, according to Thacker.

“I began asking questions and was told technology costs a lot of money,” Thacker told EAGnews last year. “I wondered why we were spending so much money on laptops when we don’t use laptops anymore. I noted the name of one of the vendors – Laptops and More – and I was told the expenses had to do with the ‘more’ part.

“I think there’s a big, huge concern when nobody is looking at what’s going on. It’s ripe for problems.”

‘A culture of complicity’

Thacker said there were many instances when other school officials thought she was sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, even before the Palazzo affair.

“When I joined the board the former superintendent suggested I join the dress code committee, but I asked for an appointment to the financial committee,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t getting the information pertaining to the financial questions I had. Bills were being paid without financial approval or scrutiny. I was told the schools don’t budget like businesses.

“I sat in executive meetings and had school attorneys, administrators and board members scream at me because I was asking questions. It looked to me like a culture of complicity, with so many people related to each other, or friends with each other, in a small community.”

Thacker’s instincts proved to be correct, and her determination to press forward helped end a scam that was costing taxpayers and students a great deal of money.

Good for her.

School boards are elected by the people to govern school districts, the same way congressmen are elected to govern the nation. The notion that they should sit on their hands, mind their own business and allow employees to operate without question is preposterous.

Unfortunately, too many board members across the nation have been relegated to the role of passive observer. They have been pushed to the side by aggressive “education professionals,” and have no real idea what’s going on. That makes public school transparency and accountability far less likely.

Tax payers would benefit from having more Holly Thackers on school boards across America.

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