Video: Missing money

By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/30/2005 8:34:29 PM ET 2005-03-31T01:34:29

Roslyn, Long Island is a well-to-do community in New York, home to some of America's finest public schools — 3,500 students are educated here, on a $70 million annual budget.

For 12 years, Frank Tassone was superintendent.

"I think people felt comfortable around him because they believed in him," says Kim Flom, the president of the Roslyn High School PTA. "They trusted him."

They trusted him when he publicly pledged to fix the mess when his assistant superintendent was accused of stealing $250,000, writing school checks to cover her personal bills.

"We're fully cooperating with the district attorney's office," Tassone told WNBC-TV in May 2004.

But shortly after that, a startling development occurred: Tassone himself was arrested, charged in what's been called one of the worst thefts ever from a public school system.

"I've never seen this kind of greed and systematic misappropriation of money," says New York State comptroller Alan Hevesi. "[He was] taking money from the kids."

A state audit revealed that $11.2 million was siphoned, benefiting at least 29 people. $2.4 million allegedly went to Tassone alone, including $16,300 spent at Tiffany's, $7,550 for custom tailoring and $45,114 in mortgage payments on a home in Pennsylvania.

The report also says Tassone traveled extensively on Roslyn's dime — to Puerto Rico, Cancun and Thailand. $43,184 was spent on flights to London, most likely, according to auditors, on the Concord.

Tassone's attorney told NBC News some expenses were legitimate and he disputes others. He says Tassone's contract "doesn't say whether he has to swim across the ocean or take the Apollo 13."

Roslyn school officials say in spite of the alleged theft of funds, they still send 95 percent of graduating high school seniors to college. That continued success may have been one reason, they say, very few people thought to question how the school district's money was being spent.

Criminal allegations involving school budgets have recently led to convictions of school officials in Pattonsburg, Mo., East Detroit and Elizabeth, Colo.

"This country is set up so that lay school boards make policy," says Roslyn school board president Stanley Stern. "Well, you must also train those boards so that we can make appropriate policy and then be sure that it's enforced."

Parents in Roslyn learned that the hard way.

"It's a price we had to pay," says Kim Flom. "A terrible price, but in the end we will all be better."

Roslyn is a community better prepared now, like its students, to ask tough questions and demand thorough answers.

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