Collection control

After firing three high-ranking department members for mishaps amounting to $133,647 in losses to the English Language Institute, the University is preparing to centralize all cash collections.

“We’re going to move as much of that sort of cash handling operation and centralize it so the cash that’s received is really received by the University Cashier’s Office and not by this particular organization or unit,” said John Skvoretz, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “What we’re looking at in this particular case of the Institute is to really minimize the extent at which (the ELI) accepts checks from people and that all acceptance of the money is taken care of centrally.”

Announcements for an overhaul in collections were circulated via e-mail on Thursday after colleagues of Patricia Baker, former senior fiscal assistant for the ELI, found approximately $275,000 in student checks and petty cash in her office on Dec. 21.

Baker was fired on Wednesday after sitting on numerous receipts and payroll checks as well as health insurance premiums tendered by international students. Most of the money was payment from students wanting to learn English as a second language.

Baker hid receipts from as far back as 1992 in filling cabinets, desk drawers and shelving units throughout her office.

“As soon as we found this out, we basically changed the locks on the doors and tried to inventory everything and get it out of there as soon as we could,” Skvoretz said. “The things that could be deposited, like the actual cash itself, was deposited immediately.”

According to University spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon, there is concern some checks may bounce. Students will be notified before the University deposits their checks back into ELI accounts.But officials also found numerous outdated checks and unpaid bills costing the $750,000- to $800,000-a-year institute nearly $133,647.

The decision to centralize the 170-plus cash collection units across the University comes just one month after a state auditor’s report said USF’s financial controls were in need of improvements.

According to Thursday’s e-mail, Provost Renu Khator said the University had set up a finance committee to consider the audit’s recommendations, but problems with the ELI surfaced before administrators could implement revisions.

“The institute’s money problems happened in the interim, revealing not just the vulnerable nature of our system but also the urgent need to act,” Khator wrote.

Former ELI Director Richard Schreck, who first discovered the hidden cash and checks, was fired Jan. 10, along with former Assistant Director for Curriculum and Instruction Barbara Smith-Palinkas. According to dismissal notices, they were fired for “lack of attention to (their) management responsibilities.”

No grievances had been filed by any of the three as of Friday, but some faculty are upset over the firings and think USF officials made a rash decision by firing Smith-Palinkas.

“I just felt that this was a very unjust decision,” an ELI faculty member said. “She’s the epitome of academic integrity and professionalism.”

But according to Skvoretz, there were many reasons why supervisory personnel were to blame.

“There were complaints, and those complaints basically sort of followed back to the person who was the source of the problem to begin with,” Skvoretz said. “If I’m supervising an operation and I’m receiving complaints from students that their checks haven’t cleared, complaints from people that we’re buying stuff and that they haven’t been paid yet, you would think it would add up over time into something that you would really want to address.”

While the University Office of Audit and Compliance continues an investigation into the ELI’s fiscal operations, officials from the College of Arts and Sciences have appointed office assistant Sonia Manna to help straighten the books.

“She’s up there now because she knows how the fiscal exchanges need to be carried out,” Skvoretz said. “She understands how they need to be treated to provide that kind of continuity until we’re able to change the overall practice up there. There will be some sort of transition, and she’s there to sort of manage that transition.”

Associate professor of world languages Wei Zhu was appointed as the acting director of the ELI.

On Friday, the financial council reviewing the state audit said USF should be able to reduce cash collection units from 170 to 59, according to USF Chief Financial Officer Carl Carlucci.Each of the CFOs for the major units on campus would oversee and take responsibility for deciding which units to consolidate, he said.