Finance Boss Says School Pulled a Fast One

BRIGHTON, Colo. (CN) – A Colorado school district fired its financial manager for truthfully reporting that it asked her to pad its budget with $12 million in unverifiable salary expenses, she claims in court.
     Tracey Cantrell claims Adams 12 Five Star Schools fired her from her $72,400 job for reporting the district’s $12 million budget padding to an auditor.
     She also sued Superintendent Chris Gdowski and chief financial officer Shelley Becker, who she claims ordered her to pad the budget.
     In her May 19 lawsuit in Adams County Court, Cantrell says she was fiscal manager for student support services but had to take on extra tasks when the district’s budget director resigned.
     In the process, Cantrell says, she discovered there was at least “$12 million in unverifiable salary expenses built into the fiscal-year 2013 budget,” and reported it to Becker.
     At a budget meeting six weeks later, Cantrell says, Becker asked her to “find untraceable employees that Ms. Becker could put in the budget.” This indicated to her “that Ms. Becker was actually intending to pad the budget with unverifiable expenses,” Cantrell says.
     She says she reported this to the district’s internal auditor, nonparty Gina Holub, and emailed Holub her spreadsheets detailing the $12 million excess.
     When Becker heard, she became violent, Cantrell says.
     She claims that on July 24, 2012, Becker came to her office and “pressed (Cantrell’s) face down on her desk, with Ms. Becker’s mouth in Ms. Cantrell’s hair, and said, ‘How dare you go behind my back to the internal auditor?'”
     Her truthful reports led to problems with other district officials, Cantrell says.
     In August 2012, Cantrell says, she asked the Colorado Department of Education what could be done.
     She says the department told her that hiding $12 million of expenses was “inappropriate,” but that the department “did not have the resources to do anything about it.”
     “She was advised [by the state] to go to both the state teachers’ union and to the press with this information,” Cantrell says in the complaint.
     She says she spoke about the hidden $12 million to a teachers’ union official on Oct. 1, 2012, “so that the teachers’ union would know the true facts and would be able to fairly negotiate with the school district in the upcoming negotiations.”
     On Oct. 19, the district wrongfully fired Holub, the auditor, to retaliate for her “speaking on the hidden expenses in the budget,” according to the complaint.
     Then on Feb. 4, 2013, Fox News broadcast a story “in which it stated that Ms. Holub had blown the whistle on the fact that the district was hiding at least $12 million in unsupported salary expenses while cutting services to students,” Cantrell says.
     She says Holub sent the district an intent-to-sue letter on Feb. 13, 2013, referring to the “budgetary fraud,” and that all of the defendants knew that she, Cantrell, had discovered the fraud and discussed it with Holub.
     The district confiscated her computer on Feb. 19, 2013 and fired her on a pretext on March 12, Cantrell says.
     Cantrell’s attorney Robert Liechty said the district fired his client for “fabricated” reasons, but actually because of the information she gave Holub.
     Cantrell seeks damages for breach of contract, intentional interference with contract, conspiracy, retaliation, wrongful firing, wantonness, damage to her reputation and emotional distress.
     Liechty is a partner in Cross, Liechty & Lane, of Greenwood Village.
     Shelley Becker did not respond to a request for comment.

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