State Auditors in Koines Case

Island Activates New State Law for Investigating ‘Irregularities' in Towns, School Districts; Will Search Go Deeper?

By CHRIS BURRELL

After months of saying they wanted to put this controversy in the past, high school leaders have called on state auditors to wade into the Peter Koines scandal and issue a decision on whether they dug deeply enough into the case of the culinary arts teacher who stole school equipment, student funds and food supplies.

The regional high school committee voted unanimously Monday night to invite the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) to take a look at the school's own investigation into the actions of Mr. Koines, a culinary teacher for 13 years who admitted in court last August to five counts of larceny.

The request will amount to something of a report card from the state agency - with one possible upshot being a recommendation for a state audit of the Vineyard high school.

"We want them to come down and audit our work, check what we've done and give us a reading on whether or not we have sufficiently examined our books or whether we should go further," said Peg Regan, principal of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. "This is a really appropriate thing to do."

Her comments and action by the school committee came less than a month after Islanders turned out in large numbers at a public meeting and demanded a new and comprehensive audit related to the thefts.

Tisbury officials helped broker the contact with the OSA, telling school leaders about a new state law and pilot program that allows state auditors to investigate "suspected irregularities or illegal acts" in towns or regional school districts.

Mrs. Regan has already spoken with officials at the OSA and said the Vineyard high school would be the first to try out the new law. "We're the first people to petition them for this. We would be the test case," she told the school board.

Responsive to the public outcry, school committee members this week said they welcomed the proposal to bring in experts from the state and take a fresh look at the evidences.

"The feeling from the community is that we should have some form of audit," said Leslie Baynes, school committee member from Edgartown. "It gives us an independent set of eyes."

"I'm delighted to see this. It's a terrific first step," said Susan Parker, school board representative from Chilmark.

The initial examination by the state auditor's office will not cost the high school any money, but an audit by the agency wouldn't come for free.

"Expenses for such an audit would be borne by the school or towns with funds deposited upfront," said state auditor spokesman Glenn Briere.

He added that in cases when a district attorney requests an investigator from the OSA, the cost of the service is covered by the state.

For now, school committee members are clearly treating their request as a first phase move. Mr. Briere said the cost of state audits vary widely.

Two months ago, Chris Rogers, the accountant who prepares the annual audit for the regional high school, advised Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash that the cost of a full audit ran the risk of diminishing returns, possibly costing more money to produce than any new funds found to be stolen.

But at an Oct. 27 meeting which drew almost 100 people, that argument was attacked. Tisbury finance committee member Don Amaral stood up at that meeting, urging the school committee to consider commissioning an independent audit in order to put the case to rest.

This week, Mrs. Regan credited Mr. Amaral with bringing the new state law to her attention. Mr. Amaral later acknowledged Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge's effort to uncover information about the legislation which was passed last July.

Mr. Amaral told the Gazette yesterday that school leaders need to create a feeling of trust. "They want to move ahead, but I don't think you can move ahead before you do this [audit]. You need to go into more depth," he said.

He added, "There's a great deal of uneasiness on the Island about what really did happen."

Mr. Cash came under fire last month for his role in dealing with Mr. Koines. Some people at the October meeting accused the superintendent of failing to denounce the actions of the teacher. They said he was trying to diminish the magnitude of the crime.

Indeed, just days before the Oct. 27 meeting - the first time high school leaders had taken up the Koines case in a public forum - Mr. Cash released a sheaf of documents from his own inquiry which he said proved Mr. Koines had stolen far less than police had determined in their investigation.

Shortly after Oak Bluffs police searched Mr. Koines's house and then arrested him on July 11, they issued a press release saying that their three-week investigation found that the teacher had stolen $7,000 worth of school-owned equipment and another $4,000 in food supplies which he used for his private pie business.

By mid-August, after an initial audit of the culinary program - completed by Mr. Rogers - police said Mr. Koines had pocketed $19,000 in checks from the Martha's Vineyard Rod & Gun Club, payment for catch-and-release tournament breakfasts prepared by the high school culinary students every June.

But Mr. Cash said his own investigation into the case against Mr. Koines showed that he had stolen only $1,500 worth of equipment and that much of the Rod & Gun Club money actually went to vendors and to students who worked for the events.

Now, some of those questions could be left for state auditors to answer.

Mr. Koines was ordered to pay $20,000 back to the regional high school. He has already paid back half and must pay the remainder by February of 2005, the end of his probation term.

The former teacher, who admitted to the facts of the case when he appeared in Edgartown District Court in late August, was also ordered to perform more than 1,000 hours of community service. His case was continued without a finding for 18 months.

He will have a clean slate after that time if he meets the terms of the pay-back and stays out of legal trouble.

Last month, Mr. Koines faced the crowd at the high school library and apologized. Some called for compassion and an end to the controversy. Doug Debettencourt, a high school math teacher who sat next to Mr. Koines, said, "He's been through a living hell."

But the words left ringing in the ears of high school officials - the ones calling for more action and more accountability - were clearly louder.

In just two weeks, high school leaders will be unveiling next year's budget at a meeting of the all-Island selectmen, looking for support.

"They want to create a feeling of trust here," said Mr. Amaral. "That won't happen until they clear the air."