A high school administrator in San Jose opened an unauthorized bank account, spent hundreds of dollars on clothing, massages and meals, and wrote checks to herself and to cash, according to school district records obtained exclusively by NBC Bay Area.
Cary Catching, the former principal of San Jose High School, opened a bank account in 2010 linked to the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), even though that’s clearly against district policy.
Parents, teachers and faculty have since questioned purchases tied to the account and accuse her of stealing money intended for students. Many also question the way San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) responded after the allegations of theft surfaced.
“You cannot be in education, work for children and be taking away money which other people have donated to programs and kids,” said parent volunteer Anjali Mehta.
At San Jose High, parent participation is not as robust as at other Bay Area schools. Mehta devotes hours to the school. She runs the snack bar during school football games and organizes student fundraisers for the district, which provides reduced-priced lunch for 45 percent of the student population.
“We fight for every single dollar that we need to put back into programs for the kids,” Mehta said.
Principal Opens Unauthorized Account
In a Sept. 30, 2010 email provided to the Investigative Unit, Catching writes to the PTSA, “I actually went to the bank and did this all today,” in reference to opening a petty cash account in the name of the PTSA.
District policy advises school administrators not to make purchases with PTSA funds, sign on PTSA banking accounts or comingle PTSA money with student body funds. Parents are supposed to run the PTSA and decide how and where to spend the money. But district records show Catching was the one calling the shots. Parents and teachers say the account served as Catching’s personal piggybank; a private slush fund that only she controlled.
According to a district audit of the account, from September 2010 to May 2013 Catching spent thousands of dollars at restaurants including $518 at Original Joe’s in downtown San Jose and $135 at nearby steakhouse McCormick and Schmick’s. She also spent hundreds on clothing and massages for staff, lotto tickets, and wrote a $160 check to the National Kidney Foundation.
The district identified roughly $7,300 worth of expenses “without receipts or explanations” over three years. The expenses included several checks for hundreds of dollars that Catching made out to herself and one check she wrote to “cash” for $1,765.48.
The district’s audit reveals how Catching spent the money, but it is unclear where exactly the money came from. One individual, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the district, told the Investigative Unit that Catching may have taken the money directly from cashboxes at school football games and dances.
“She would take it and count it; some was taken out and some was left in,” the insider said. “There is such a shortage of school money right now and to have money disappear that could be helping our community, our students and or staff—that is appalling to me.”
Former San Jose High School math teacher Clinton Loo claimed that Catching may have skimmed off of a fundraiser to benefit Project Horizon, the school’s travel-study program. He said that he and another teacher gave Catching the cash to deposit into the project’s bank account.
“It was exactly $500 short,” Loo said. “We were both incredulous. We didn’t know what happened. We had double counted the money ourselves and we’d never made a mistake like that before. Five hundred dollars is not a small amount. If it was $20 or $40 you can understand how a bill gets stuck together. But $500 is a stack of twenties. Somewhere something was missing.”
In December 2013, the district called police after $1,600 in cash disappeared from the safe at San Jose High. District officials confirmed that they questioned the principal, but the police didn’t make any arrests.
Superintendent Remains Silent
District superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews turned down repeated requests for an interview to discuss concerns by parents and teachers that Catching stole money from students. Matthews declined to answer questions before a school board meeting earlier this month, insisting repeatedly that only the public information officer, Jorge Quintana, would be available for an interview.
Quintana said that the district started asking questions in December 2013 after hearing rumors that Catching controlled the PTSA account.
“We did what we were supposed to do and that was to question the employee,” Quintana said.
But Quintana said the district stopped investigating when Catching resigned a month later. He said SJUSD didn’t try to recoup any money because the district doesn’t have authority over the PTSA. The California Sixth District PTA, which serves SJUSD schools, said it is “not available to discuss specifics concerning San Jose High School.”
Catching declined multiple requests for comment about the petty cash account, allegations of theft and circumstances surrounding the school safe, and she did not answer questions when the Investigative Unit visited the San Mateo County Office of Education where Catching now works as the Director of Safe and Supportive Schools.
She also declined to discuss what happened to facility rental fees tied to San Jose High School.
Rental Fees Never Paid to District
Through a public records request, NBC Bay Area found that the district never received rental fees from Kevin Blunt, the owner of a men’s basketball camp called Crossover Elite. The group’s website boasts photos of multiple tournaments in 2011 that were held at San Jose High’s gym. Blunt is also named in the district’s 2012 calendars as having rented the school’s facilities.
The district has no record of any payments from Blunt. At a cost of $40 per hour plus fees, the Investigative Unit found that the district was not paid for at least $10,808 in 2012 alone.
Blunt said that he paid the district for use of the facilities but when asked if he could provide invoices, he said he would contact his attorney. He later emailed to say that he would have “no further comments.”
“Whoever rented the facility paid someone and it didn’t go to the district or to the school,” the insider said.
Quintana agreed that it is possible Catching took payment from Blunt for the use of the school’s gym. He said that the district discovered in the summer of 2013 that it hadn’t received payment from Blunt. When asked why the district didn’t contact police about the missing money, Quintana said the district “did what we were supposed to do” which was to question Catching.
Quintana said the district is trying to recoup the money and recently strengthened the process for renting facilities to ensure school staff can’t receive payment without the district’s knowledge.
But the district’s inquiry into what happened to the missing money hasn’t satisfied parents and staff, including Loo, the former math teacher.
“If there is a body of evidence that shows there was a mismanagement of funds, I think people should know about it,” Loo said.
Mehta is now the president of San Jose High’s new Parent Teacher Organization—the PTO. The group severed ties with the PTSA in 2014.
“San Jose High, it’s a fantastic school but we don’t have that many extra resources like a lot of other schools,” Mehta said. “Let’s make this small village a big army to help our kids do better at school.”
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