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Audit reveals potential misuse of funds at Reef-Sunset USD

AVENAL —An administrator at Reef-Sunset Unified School District in Avenal created fake invoices for student supplies to cover up the purchase of thousands of dollars’ worth of gift cards, this according to an audit conducted at the district.

The descriptions of the fictitious invoices submitted by Michelle Cutillo, chief business officer at the district, claimed she bought items like book sets, board games and “student incentives,” when records from stores like K-Mart, Save Mart and Barnes & Noble show she really bought hundreds of gift cards to different places.

An extraordinary audit performed estimated that Cutillo bought $289,507 worth of gift cards, of which $28,260 worth was disbursed to school sites. The report states that $83,595 worth of gift cards was potentially stolen from a safe in 2009, which was reported to police.

According to auditors, only $58,688 worth of gift cards were on hand at the district, leaving $118,965 potentially unaccounted for. The report added there was a “strong indication” that the gift cards are missing.

“It is clear that the purchase of gift cards was excessive and controls over them were severely lacking,” the audit said. It also said the extent of the purchases was kept from administration and other business office staff.

The audit was to be discussed during the district’s monthly board meeting Thursday night.

Reef-Sunset district Superintendent David East said the audit came about after the Avenal Police Department and the district received an anonymous tip regarding misuse of funds. The police department then contacted the Kings County Office of Education, which has oversight responsibilities for school districts within the county.

After initial allegations of fraud were confirmed, both superintendents from the district and county office decided on an independent audit to be performed by Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co., LLP. The firm reviewed and tested transactions back to the 2013-14 fiscal year through February of this year.

“For my part, the district administration has been very open and cooperative in handling the situation,” Todd Barlow, Kings County superintendent of schools, said Thursday in an email.

The audit includes around 50 pages of receipts and invoices, some of which were internally created by Cutillo.

“In most cases reviewed where the fictitious invoices were used, the description of the items being purchased appeared to be meant to hide the fact that gift cards were being purchased and not goods,” the audit said.

The audit report also detailed an instance in which Cutillo allegedly invited an employee to her home to count around $40,400 in cash on hand collected from technology fees and charges from students.

Due to lack of documentation, the report said it is impossible to determine if this money was all she had collected from sites over the years.

Along with gift cards, auditors said they found several undeposited checks at Cutillo’s office.

The audit report concluded that there was a “strong potential” for fraud or misappropriation of funds given the internal controls and practices being used.

The report and county office have made recommendations, including the use of deposit slips and receipt books for individual sites and the district, which East said the district will implement.

It also suggested a plan to distribute remaining gift cards to school sites and teachers for supplies, or to be used for districtwide instructional materials. It will now be district policy to not allow the purchase of gift cards for any purpose.

“We are here to support the board of trustees and district administration in bringing sound governance, effective internal controls, and fiscal responsibility and accountability to Reef-Sunset USD,” Barlow said. “We will also support them in implementing the recommendations set forth in the audit report.

A copy of the report will be distributed to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, California State Controller and the Kings County District Attorney for review.

“It is equally important that anyone who may have committed fraud, misappropriation of funds, or other illegal fiscal practices be fully investigated and, if determined to have committed such wrongdoings, be held accountable,” Barlow said.

In regards to Cutillo, East said the issue is a personnel matter and could not talk about the status of her employment with the district.

Now that the investigation is complete, East said he is looking forward to closure on the issue and moving the district forward.

“We’re always working in the best interest of students, parents and staff and have worked to rectify the issue since it was discovered,” East said. “We hope to regain their trust.”

'Lion King' brings circle of life to the Valley

FRESNO — “Hakuna Matata.” Any Disney fan knows that it means no worries for the rest of your days.

And it’s that carefree spirit that Timon, Pumbaa, Simba and the rest of “Lion King” crew will bring to the Central Valley this month.

The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1997, has been seen by over 95 million people since and has won six Tony Awards. It’s based on the beloved Disney cartoon of the same name.

A sweet and child-like retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” without all the violence and insanity, “The Lion King” tells the story of young Simba, a lion cub whose kingdom is stolen by a treacherous uncle. The actors all play members of the animal kingdom. Lions, hyenas, elephants and more will take the stage to tell the epic coming-of-age story.

“It’s a unique show, it’s different from every other show,” said the production’s wardrobe supervisor, Gregory Young.   “It’s not your typical, pants, shirt and tie type of a show.”

Young has been with the show off-and-on since its Broadway days and cites the production’s unique costumes as a reason why the “Lion King” remains a fulfilling endeavor – not just for himself, but for audiences as well.

“Listening to the audience reaction makes you keep going,” he said.

Young said that another special aspect of the show is that the audience has options on where to focus their attention. Will individuals in the audience pay attention to the actor emotionally conveying the dialogue and singing the songs? Or to the cartoon-like puppet they’re bringing to live life while doing so?

Young travels to each stop on the tour with four assistants, but adds nearly 20 local people to assist with maintaining and laundering each costume.

Over the course of the musical, 250 costumes will appear on stage. Young said that any garment that touches the skin of an actor must be washed nightly – a seemingly Herculean task that can take up to six hours a day.

Young said that nearly every day, there will be some sort of fire to put out, whether it be major or minor, in terms of the elaborate and expensive costumes coming into disrepair.

“Someone will bump a doorknob or something and it will tear the costume or tear the silk,” he said.

Major catastrophes are avoided through regular maintenance, he said.

The show will open at the Saroyan Theater on Nov. 28 and run through Dec. 9.

“The Lion King” features award-winning music by Elton John.

The production features Spencer Plachy as Scar, Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa, Buyi Zama as Rafiki, Nick Cordileone as Timon, Greg Jackson as Zazu, Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa, Jared Dixon as Simba, Nia Holloway as Nala, Keith Bennett as Banzai, Martina Sykes as Shenzi and Robbie Swift as Ed.  

Wildfires spark concern over major health consequences

Smoke masks. Eye drops. No outdoor exercise. This is how Californians are trying to cope with wildfires choking the state, but experts say an increase in serious health problems may be almost inevitable for vulnerable residents as the disasters become more commonplace.

Research suggests children, the elderly and those with existing health problems are most at risk.

Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can worsen existing asthma and lung disease, leading to emergency room treatment or hospitalization, studies have shown.

Increases in doctor visits or hospital treatment for respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia in otherwise healthy people also have been found during and after wildfires.

Some studies also have found increases in ER visits for heart attacks and strokes in people with existing heart disease on heavy smoke days during previous California wildfires, echoing research on potential risks from urban air pollution.

For most healthy people, exposure to wildfire smoke is just an annoyance, causing burning eyes, scratchy throats or chest discomfort that all disappear when the smoke clears.

But doctors, scientists and public health officials are concerned that the changing face of wildfires will pose a much broader health hazard,

"Wildfire season used to be June to late September. Now it seems to be happening all year round. We need to be adapting to that," Dr. Wayne Cascio, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cardiologist, said this week.

In an overview published earlier this year, Cascio wrote that the increasing frequency of large wildland fires, urban expansion into wooded areas and an aging population are all increasing the number of people at risk for health problems from fires.

Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair. These can infiltrate the bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation and blood vessel damage even in healthy people, research on urban air pollution has shown. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution.

Whether exposure to wildfire smoke carries the same risks is uncertain, and determining harm from smog versus wildfire smoke can be tricky, especially with wind-swept California wildfires spreading thick smoke hundreds of miles away into smoggy big cities.

"That is the big question," said Dr. John Balmes, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine who studies air pollution.

"Very little is known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because it's hard to study populations years after a wildfire," Balmes said.

Decreased lung function has been found in healthy firefighters during fire season. They tend to recover, but federal legislation signed this year will establish a U.S. registry tracking firefighters and potential risks for various cancers, including lung cancer. Some previous studies suggested a risk.

Balmes noted that increased lung cancer rates have been found in women in developing countries who spend every day cooking over wood fires.

That kind of extreme exposure doesn't typically happen with wildfires, but experts worry about the kinds of health damage that may emerge for firefighters and residents with these blazes occurring so often.

Whether that includes more cancer is unknown. "We're concerned about that," Balmes said.

Regular folks breathing in all that smoke worry about the risks too.

Smoke from the fire that decimated the Northern California city of Paradise darkened skies this week in San Francisco, nearly 200 miles southwest, and the air smelled "like you were camping," said Michael Northover, a contractor.

He and his 14-year-old son have first-time sinus infections that Northover blames on the smoke.

"We're all kind of feeling it," Northover said.

Classes were canceled Thursday in at least six universities in Northern California as smoke from the fire continued to blanket all nine counties of the Bay Area. Some were closing all buildings but others, including Cal State East Bay said libraries, health centers and dining halls would stay open.

Smoke has been so thick in Santa Rosa that researchers postponed a door-to-door survey there for a study of health effects of last year's fire.

"We didn't feel we could justify our volunteer interns going knocking on doors when all the air quality alerts were saying stay indoors," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a public health researcher at the University of California, Davis. The study includes an online survey of households affected by last year's fire, with responses from about 6,000 people so far.

Preliminary data show widespread respiratory problems, eye irritations, anxiety, depression and sleep problems around the time of the fire and months later.

Researchers also will be analyzing cord blood and placentas collected from a few dozen women who were pregnant during the fire, seeking evidence of stress markers or exposure to smoke chemicals.

They hope to continue the study for years, seeking evidence of long-term physical and emotional harms to fire evacuees and their children.

NOE GARCIA, The Sentinel 

Sierra Pacific quarterback Chad Leslie throws the ball during a practice at Sierra Pacific High School on Wednesday. Sierra Pacific will face Strathmore in the CIF Central Section Division VI championship tonight at 7 p.m.

UK's defiant May tells critics it's her Brexit deal or chaos

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May defied mounting calls to quit or change course Thursday over Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, warning that abandoning her Brexit plan would plunge the country into "deep and grave uncertainty."

Britain's long-simmering divisions over its future in the EU erupted into turmoil just a day after the government agreed to a divorce deal with the bloc. Two Cabinet ministers resigned and some lawmakers from May's own party called for her to be replaced. The crisis threatened to destroy the Brexit agreement, unseat the prime minister and send the U.K. hurtling toward the EU exit without a plan.

In an evening news conference aimed at regaining some control, May said she believed "with every fiber of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people."

"Am I going to see this through? Yes," she said.

The hard-won agreement with the EU has infuriated pro-Brexit members of May's divided Conservative Party. They say the agreement, which calls for close trade ties between the U.K. and the bloc, would leave Britain a vassal state, bound to EU rules it has no say in making.

May insisted that Brexit meant making "the right choices, not the easy ones" and urged lawmakers to support the deal "in the national interest."

But she was weakened by the resignation of two senior Cabinet ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. Hours after he sat in the meeting that approved the deal, Raab said he "cannot in good conscience" support it.

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey followed Raab out the door. She said in a letter that it is "no good trying to pretend to (voters) that this deal honors the result of the referendum when it is obvious to everyone that it doesn't."

A handful of junior government ministers also quit, and leading pro-Brexit lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg called for a vote of no-confidence in May.

Rees-Mogg said May's deal "is not Brexit" because it would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, potentially for an indefinite period. He said May was "losing the confidence of Conservative members of Parliament."

Rees-Mogg called for May to be replaced by a more firmly pro-Brexit politician, naming ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, former Brexit Secretary David Davis and Raab as potential successors.

Under Conservative rules, a confidence vote in the leader is triggered if 15 percent of Conservative lawmakers — currently 48 — write a letter to the party's 1922 Committee of backbenchers, which oversees leadership votes.

Only committee chairman Graham Brady knows for sure how many missives have been sent, but Rees-Mogg's letter is likely to spur others to do the same.

If a confidence vote is held and May loses, it would trigger a party leadership contest in which any Conservative lawmaker — except her — could run.

The turmoil is the latest eruption in the Conservative Party's long-running civil war over Europe. Ever since Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, the party has been split between supporters and opponents of Britain's membership. In 2016, then-Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum "to settle this European question in British politics" once and for all.

He was confident the country would vote to remain, but voters opted by 52 percent to 48 percent to quit the EU, a result that left both the Conservatives and the country more divided than ever. Cameron's successor, May, has been struggling ever since to deliver a Brexit that satisfies those who want to leave, reconciles those wanting to remain and doesn't rock the economy — a near-impossible balancing act.

Thursday's political mayhem prompted a big fall in the value of the pound, which was trading 1.5 percent lower at $1.2797 as investors fretted that Britain could crash out of the EU in March without a deal. That could see tariffs on British exports, border checks and restrictions on travelers and workers — a potentially toxic combination for businesses.

Business groups have warned that if there is no deal by next month, companies will have to enact contingency plans that could include cutting jobs, stockpiling goods, and relocating production overseas.

May and her supporters say the alternatives to her deal — leaving the bloc without a deal or a second vote on Brexit — are not realistic options.

If the agreement was abandoned, "nobody can know for sure the consequences that will follow," May said.

News that a deal had been struck after a year and a half of negotiations was welcomed in Brussels, and EU chief Donald Tusk called for a Nov. 25 summit of leaders so they can rubber-stamp the agreement.

The deal requires the consent of the European Parliament, whose chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed it as "the best agreement we could obtain."

It also needs approval from Britain's Parliament before the U.K. leaves the bloc on March 29 — and even if May survives as leader, the chances of that look slim.

Her Conservative government doesn't have a parliamentary majority, and relies on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. But the DUP has rejected the deal.