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Fixes fail to take hold in auto shop

For more than a year, ever since the Times investigated Withlacoochee Technical Institute and found it wanting, the school has supposedly been on its best behavior.

No more credit to customers of the school's shops. No more sloppy documentation. No more repeated work on the cars of a privileged few.

WTI's problems were fixed, district officials told the Times.

Not true.

School records show that some corrective actions were disregarded days after they were ordered. Cars were still repaired on credit. Some customers got three, even four jobs done by the shops. And, according to former auto shop teacher Keith Estep, the school's director Steve Kinard approved work orders that contained forged authorizations.

Even before that, just six days after the Times reviewed the shop's work orders in 1997, Kinard authorized work on a vehicle whose ownership was hidden with a fake name.

Once the newspaper stories were published, Kinard was brazen, Estep said.

At a staff meeting "he told us we were doing things as we'd always done them. "Nothing is going to change,' " Estep said.

Kinard refused to respond to questions about the school.

School Superintendent Pete Kelly said he hadn't heard of Kinard's alleged remark to his teachers. "That would disturb me if that was the truth," he said.

Last year, once an internal audit and an administrative review of the school confirmed the Times' findings, Kelly reprimanded Kinard, his one-time supervisor and longtime friend.

On Oct. 21, he forwarded to Kinard a list of corrective actions to take and said he would "closely monitor" Kinard's efforts to fix the problems.

How did Kelly monitor Kinard?

"I personally have not done anything," Kelly said.

It's assistant superintendent Tom Maher's job to supervise principals, according to Kelly. "He (Maher) has talked to Mr. Kinard on several occasions," Kelly said. "I don't know if he's done any follow up . . ."

Maher said he "met at least two times formally with Mr. Kinard, at which times we discussed whether or not all the requirements were in place, and both times, the answer was yes." Maher said he did not independently verify the corrections had been made.

Kelly said that the district's internal auditor had worked with the school on its record-keeping.

He said Kinard had told him "everything was fine over there, everything was being handled in a business-like manner."

As for the uncorrected problems, Kelly said he still felt the school was doing better than it had in the past, just "not quite good enough."

Without "going down into the shops and asking questions all the time," Kelly said, "it would be impossible to know" about the continuing problems.

Disregarding policy

After last year's investigations, Kinard was told to:

+ Stop extending credit to shop customers by letting them pay in installments.

+ Make the customer pay half the estimated cost in advance on jobs that cost more than $200.

+ Make the customer pay an additional deposit if the estimate was "grossly understated."

A week after Kinard was reprimanded, those policies were violated, records show.

On Oct. 28, WTI teacher Al Mitchell put a $101 deposit on a car repair job for himself that was supposed to cost $200. The estimate was clearly too low; that same day, the school bought more than $200 in parts for the job.

Over the next seven weeks, the school spent another $380 for parts, though Mitchell wasn't asked to increase his deposit. On Dec. 19, Mitchell paid most of the $686 bill; he made the final $66 payment Jan. 30.

In another instance, the school's auto body shop carried the $541 cost of refinishing Anthony Smith's Isuzu for nearly two months with a $150 deposit.

And on Nov. 20, WTI assistant principal Fred Conley brought in a tractor engine to be overhauled by the heavy equipment shop. Because the estimated cost was $180, Conley wasn't required to pay a deposit.

But over the next three weeks, WTI bought $296.64 in parts for the job. Conley was told he needed to pay a deposit. By the rules, the deposit should have been at least $190; half of the job's $380 cost. On Dec. 16, Conley put down $50.01.

Two months later, he paid another $50.01; on March 19, another $50.01.

The $229.74 balance was not paid until April 9, after the Times began scrutinizing WTI records again.

Work for friends and allies

According to last year's recommendations, the WTI shops weren't to accept jobs that would take longer than 30 days to complete _ a recommendation that wasn't followed in the Conley and Mitchell jobs, among others.

Maher also recommended that no one be allowed to use the WTI shops more than once a year. School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick went even further: The customer couldn't get additional work done by using the names of family members or companies in which the customer has an interest.

But during the school year, more than a dozen customers got as many as four jobs done at the shops, according to school records.

Fitzpatrick said last year that the school's auto shop should work only on the cars of students and district employees. Any work done for the general public "must be of a unique nature or provide a special educational opportunity not otherwise available," he wrote.

That would correct a problem described in the Times investigation: The auto shops were regularly doing work for a select group, including Kinard's friends and their companies.

Fitzpatrick said the instructor had to document, in writing, the educational purpose of any work performed for the general public.

But no such documentation is contained on a single work order issued since Fitzpatrick made his recommendations.

All shop work orders had to be authorized by the instructor and approved by Kinard and the customer. Estep, the former auto shop teacher, said he periodically turned down jobs because they did not provide a specific educational benefit to his students.

Often, after he had turned down a job, Estep said, he would later find a work order for that job on his desk, filled out by somebody else and approved by Kinard.

When he was shown shop work orders obtained by the Times, Estep pointed to page after page of the school records that carried his initials, but not his handwriting.

"I didn't do that one," he said, flipping through the work orders. "I didn't do that one. I didn't sign that."

"Look at the writing," he said when reviewing one work order. "This is how I write."

He said he did not know who filled out the forms or who signed his name.

Estep said he also didn't know who "Annie IV" was. But on Feb. 12, 1997, he found a work order in his school mailbox to do a tire rotation, wheel alignment and oil change on a Nissan 280 ZX owned by "Annie IV."

The Nissan was parked out back when he arrived at school, Estep said. He said he didn't know who stuck the work order in his mailbox, who dropped off the car or who picked it up.

Kinard approved the work order. The school processed the paperwork, even typing an invoice and signing off on the $16.76 payment of "Annie IV."

Estep said that once work orders hit his desk, whether he had authorized them or not, he would instruct the students to do the work.

But Estep said he was frustrated because students' learning was interrupted so they could do work he hadn't scheduled for them.