North Shore Sun
November 18, 2010

Probe: Mount Sinai teacher overcharged students for class trips

By Samantha Brix

Students at Mount Sinai High School have for five years been overpaying for senior class trips organized by a now-retired district middle school teacher who is also a travel agent, according to an accounting investigation launched by the father of two former Mount Sinai students.

The most recent example shows students were charged $1,300 each for a four-night trip to Disney World in 2010, including airfare, meals and a hotel where they slept four to a room, having to either share a bed or snooze on the floor. Factoring the cost of buses and chaperones, that price is 40 percent higher than the package cost of the equivalent trip for a family of four, the report’s author found.

The teacher, Wendy Rottner, retired as a Mount Sinai Middle School foreign language teacher in June 2005 and still works for Northfork Travel, which was located in Shoreham but is now based in Arizona. Mount Sinai High School used Ms. Rottner’s services to book senior trips from May 2005, at which point she was still employed by the district, through 2010, school officials acknowledged.

The probe was launched after one student, concerned he had been overcharged for the 2010 Disney World trip, approached Kessler International of Port Jefferson, a company that specializes in forensic accounting and corporate investigations, said its president and CEO, Michael Kessler.

Mr. Kessler found that a student fund called Extraclassroom Activities Fund overpaid Northfork Travel by more than $8,000 in February 2006. The account is made up of funds raised by the students and is administered by a faculty adviser.

The school district did not supply Kessler International with any documentation that the overpayment had been refunded, he said. Mount Sinai Superintendent Anthony Bonasera this week told the Sun that in the wake of the Kessler report, the travel agency plans to reimburse the account.

Reached by phone, Ms. Rottner said she recently received a call from the school district about a possible overpayment and is working with the district’s accountant to correct it.

“If there is any overpayment, it will be refunded to the school district,” she said.

According to the report, students also overpaid for senior class trips in 2005, 2008 and 2009, when more money was received than was spent on trips.

From 2005 to 2009, Mr. Kessler reported, more than $720,000 was paid to Northfork Travel by the students’ Extraclassroom Activities Fund without supporting documentation. He said only three or four pieces of paper exist to document all of the travel expenses for those years, when there should have been numerous invoices for hotels and airfares, as well as documentation from the Northfork Travel delineating its agency fee.

Since the trip expenses are lumped together, it is unclear how much Northfork Travel was paid for its services. Around the time of each trip, the district reviewed and approved a one-page “memo” submitted by Ms. Rottner, Mr. Kessler found.

In another apparent documentation debacle, Mr. Kessler said the Mount Sinai School District did not submit any IRS tax 1099 forms with the Internal Revenue Service for payments to Northfork Travel, which must be issued to any vendors receiving more than $600 in one year.

Mr. Bonasera told the Sun he assumed the form was submitted.

Kessler International also reported that Northfork Travel was not required to bid for the job, and the school district did not obtain competitive prices. Mr. Bonasera said bids were solicited years ago and the district continued to use Northfork Travel without seeking bids in subsequent years, as it was happy with the travel agency’s service. Mr. Bonasera added that the student account used to pay for the services is not subject to the rules of competitive bidding.

But expenses weren’t the only problem.

Mr. Kessler interviewed six former Mount Sinai students, including 2010 graduates, who told him the teachers accompanying them got drunk at night, smoked cigars and generally set a bad example. They also locked students in their hotel rooms at night, according to the interviews.

“It was always the same story,” Mr. Kessler said. “The teachers would be rowdy, drunk, and more than one kid told me the teachers put masking tape or duct tape across the door so they would know if the kids left the room.”

Mr. Bonasera said tape was indeed hung across the frame of hotel room doors so that teachers could see in the morning whether students had left their rooms. He said the purpose was to prevent students from hopping from room to room, and to prevent male and female students from spending nights in the same room.

As for the assertion that teachers got drunk on the trips, Mr. Bonasera said that story was not corroborated.

“We’ve never heard anything about teachers getting drunk and rowdy,” he said. “That’s kids talking about things they maybe perceived teachers did. Having a drink at a bar when you’re over 21 is not illegal, but it’s not good judgment.”

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