Dr. Cebrun, Embattled Rialto Schools Superintendent, Quits

(March 10)  Rialto Unified School District Superintendent Harold Cebrun, who was caught up in the Judith Oakes scandal just as the current school year was beginning, elected to retire earlier this month, effective March 31.
Former district accountant Judith Oakes, who stands accused of stealing $1.8 million in lunch money proceeds from the district’s Nutrition Services Department over the past eight years, was alleged to have had a personal relationship with the superintendent.
Cebrun denied their was anything improper or untoward his relationship with Oakes, but the extent of her thefts left Cebrun under a cloud.  At least four separate investigations of the thefts have been carried out by the Rialto Police Department, the district attorney’s office, a private investigator hired by the school district and the state superintendent of schools. According to the Rialto Police Department, Cebrun was not involved in and had no foreknowledge of Oakes’ embezzlement.
In the immediate aftermath of Oakes’ arrest on August 7, a pall fell over the 26,485-student district. On September 12, 2013, as the investigation into the matter was proceeding, Cebrun and deputy superintendent James Wallace were placed on paid administrative leave. They were never returned to active status.
The investigations of Oakes’ activity showed that her thefts from the district had predated by many years Cebrun’s arrival at the Rialto district in March 2009. Previously, Cebrun was superintendent in the Compton and Lynwood school districts.
Oakes was charged by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on October 8 with eight counts of embezzlement by a public or private officer and eight counts of a public officer crime.
An audit confirmed that Oakes, who was an accountant for the district overseeing the school lunch program for nearly 14 years, stole more than $1.8 million since 2005.
According to investigator Jeff Stewart , who was hired by the district to look into the thefts, it is likely that Oakes stole more than $3.1 million since 1999. On top of the $1.8 million in cash Oakes is documented as having taken in the last eight years she was with the district, another $1.3 million is unaccounted for in the years between 1999, the year Oakes is believed to have begun her depredations, and 2005. The examination of the disappearance of district money prior to 2005 was less rigorous because those crimes fall outside the statute of limitations.
Oakes was married to Jack Oakes, an educator who eventually rose to the position of school principal in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. In the mid-1990s, Judith Oakes was working as an accountant at the Bank of Redlands, which is now known as Community Bank.
In 1997, she went to work in the Rialto Unified School District as an accountant. Eventually, she was given virtually unfettered oversight of the cash receipts from the district’s school lunch program. Not only did she oversee the crew that had physical custody of the money, she was given ultimate accounting authority over the funds.
Beginning in 1999, Oakes is believed to have begun pilfering roughly $4,000 a week from the batches of bills collected and processed by the district’s money-counting machines prior to bank deposit, according to Stewart. Having begun the thefts, it seems Oakes was obliged to continue stealing approximately the same amount of money every week – an average of between $4,100 and $4,300 weekly – so that the pattern of thefts would remain undetected.
According to Stewart, sometime after she was put in charge of the staff counting and bundling the lunch money and then depositing it into a school district account, Oakes was entrusted with security arrangements in the office where the money was counted, as well as the loss control procedure devised for the money-counting function. That increase in trust and duty came after, Stewart said, she had begun her thefts. “The [district nutrition] department has a money-counting machine that counts bills, and informs workers when there’s enough to ‘strap’ into batches,” Stewart said. “Ms. Oakes was involved with the installation of the camera system and was aware of what areas in the room were visible to it,” according to Stewart.
Oakes engaged in two levels of sleight-of-hand in first secreting the money she took out of the money counting room and then obfuscating the books that tallied the lunch receipts district-wide.
In the first instance, according to Stewart, “Oakes reportedly would bind the bills up at the back counter of the room, rather than on the table next to the computer, where she couldn’t be seen on camera. Ms. Oakes would then quite frequently take a strap or two of twenty-dollar bills or other denominations and stuff them down her top after checking to make sure the person at the computer was not looking.”
Oakes, who had an overview all of the money flowing in from all of the district’s schools, would then provide falsified deposit slips after the money was bundled and ready for deposit. Oakes overcame the scrutiny of the district staff member responsible for reconciling the bank statements with the district’s deposits by falsifying a spreadsheet which she substituted for ledgers containing entries related to the checks and cash collected from each school.
On occasion, it appears, some staff members noted inconsistencies and irregularities with regard to the total amount of money counted and the amount deposited, but Oakes was able to use her position and authority to override any questions and staff members did not, at least until relatively late, make an effort to report those irregularities out of fear of getting on Oakes’ bad side.
The roughly $210,000 Oakes was stealing from the district yearly augmented an already very comfortable $190,000 yearly household income she and her husband pulled down. Jack Oakes, who had ascended to the position of principal at Ramona-Alessandro Elementary School in the San Bernardino City Unified School District, made $119,771 during the 2009-2010 school year. Judith was making over $70,000 at that time.
In April 2010, Jack Oakes was severely injured in an off-roading accident in the desert and died of a trauma-induced heart attack.
After her husband’s death, Judith Oakes continued the thefts from the district she had previously been engaged in for over a decade. By the end of 2011, it has been alleged, she had begun a relationship with Harold Cebrun.
In May 2013, discrepancies with regard to the receipt and depositing of district lunch money was suspected. Video cameras showing perspectives from different angles than those Oakes had previously established were installed in the money counting room unbeknownst to Oakes and Cebrun. She was caught on video stuffing money into her brazier on at least two occasions.
When she was arrested on August 7, Oakes had two packets of $2,000 in $20 bills in her possession. More packets were found at her San Bernardino home later when it was searched pursuant to a warrant. Oakes made incriminating statements to police officers, characterized as a confession. She immediately posted $50,000 bond and was released.  She resigned her post on August 8.
Cebrun repeatedly denied any knowledge of Oakes’ illicit activities. The district has kept elements of the district’s investigation carried out by Stewart very close to the vest. It was unclear whether the district had sufficient grounds upon which to terminate the superintendent. The district kept him in limbo for more than six months, continuing to pay him but taking no official action to severe him. One member of the board, Joseph Ayala, advocated for returning Cebrun to the helm of the district. He was outvoted by his colleagues.
The case for keeping Cebrun employed was dealt two separate blows in January, when two reviews of the Rialto Unified School District by the state of California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team were delivered to the district.
The district administration had failed to utilize industry standard purchasing and accounting procedures and had engaged in making contractual or purchasing commitments on behalf of the district without prior authorization from the school board, according to a management assistance team review of the district’s contractual and purchasing practices dated January 6.  Another report pertaining to the district’s special education programs referenced shortcomings in the oversight of expenditures that resulted in the squandering of over $1 million and a “systematic lack of focus on instruction” for special needs students and a “lack of guidance from the highest level of leadership.”
Firing Cebrun outright at the present time would have been costly. A clause in his contract requires that he be paid 18 month’s salary if he is terminated. Thus, the school board’s acceptance of his retirement at his own volition on March 7 appears to have saved the district $360,000.
“The board respects Dr. Cebrun’s long history of service to public education, thanks him for his service to the district and wishes him well in the future,” the district stated in a prepared release that came after a two-hour closed executive session outside the view of the public on March 7. The vote to accept his resignation was made on a 4-1 vote, with board member Edgar Montes dissenting.
Unresolved at this point is the status of Wallace, who is still being paid his $170,501 annual salary.

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