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WORKING OFF THE BOOKS

The Withlacoochee Technical Institute boasts that its auto shop students spend their class time studying the highly technical systems used in today's cars.

Instead, the auto shop has secretly operated as a cheap, quick service station for WTI director Steve Kinard, his friends and dozens of other people, according to a former shop teacher.

Since at least January of 1997, the former teacher said, two out of every three jobs performed at the auto shop were undocumented. On those undocumented jobs, no work orders were filled out and no shop fees were charged. Parts and supplies were bought with cash.

The secret work violated longstanding district policies and cost the school thousands of dollars in lost labor charges. The students say it consumed their study time.

"It became like a Jiffy-Lube type place, where everyone changed their oil," said Mykal Davis, an adult student at the auto shop who will graduate next week.

Rob Young, a graduate of the program, said he learned "absolutely nothing" during class.

"You couldn't learn there because of all the oil changes and crap that Kinard brought in. You didn't have time to be in the classroom or study or anything," said Young, 23.

The off-the-books work ended only after the Times began questioning school and district officials about it.

Assistant superintendent Tom Maher and WTI's assistant director Mike Miller told the Times they knew nothing about cash purchases or undocumented repairs.

The next day, April 14, Kinard sent a memo to his instructors that all work must be accompanied by a work order and that they were "not to accept any cash transactions . . ."

Those were not new policies; they'd been in effect for years. They even were reiterated to Kinard last year, following a Times report on problems at the school.

Yet, the cash work continued after that warning. Former auto shop teacher Keith Estep said he scheduled about half of the undocumented work. He said Kinard brought in the rest.

According to Estep and six current and former students, Kinard himself often drove his or his friends' vehicles to the shop for service.

Among those vehicles were a Ford Explorer, a Toyota Supra, a black Ford Ranger, a maroon Ford Ranger and various other trucks, a silver Oldsmobile, a Toyota Celica and Kinard's school vehicle, a Ford Crown Victoria, they said. Those jobs don't show up in school records.

Typically, Estep said, Kinard brought a vehicle in, "put three dollars in my pocket and told me to get an oil filter for it."

Kinard didn't ask for or receive a work order so he could authorize those jobs, Estep said.

That made it clear to him, Estep said, that Kinard wanted no paperwork on them.

Why? "No paper trail," Estep said.

Paid in cash

By district policy, the school staff is required to fill out work orders to document the jobs done in WTI's shops. All supplies bought for shop work are to be documented with purchase orders.

But for hundreds of jobs performed by auto-shop students, there are no school records. The Times was able to confirm the hidden work through interviews with students and Estep, and by obtaining the cash-sales records of a private auto parts supplier.

The district asked for and received those records from Ace Auto Parts in Inverness at the request of the Times, then provided the newspaper a copy of them.

From January 1997 to April 1998, WTI work orders show that auto-shop students handled 148 repairs. When parts were needed for those jobs, the school used purchase orders to get them from Ace.

But the company's records show more than 300 additional sales _ all cash _ to WTI. Most of those were for parts used on the undocumented jobs, Estep confirmed.

For example, Ace has sold 93 oil filters to WTI since January of 1997; but the school's work orders show fewer than 30 oil changes were performed.

There were work orders for only 11 tune-ups, but twice that many sets of spark plugs were purchased from Ace.

Often, the school made four or five cash buys a day. Once, the school made nine cash purchases in a single day. In the past three months, the cash sales amounted to more than $1,400.

Young, who graduated from the auto-shop program last summer, said some customers would leave cash to cover the parts purchases. "Some people came up with a check," he said. "The check was made out to Ace Auto."

Estep said the school was ordering supplies for cash long before he got there in January of 1997.

"When you called (Ace) to order a part and they asked you on the phone if this is a cash ticket or is this a purchase order, now what's that telling you?" he said.

Estep said it told him that Ace Auto was accustomed to getting cash orders from the school. Ace's records bear that out. They show the school made at least a dozen cash purchases in the weeks before Estep was hired.

And the cash orders didn't stop when Estep quit in January of 1998. Ace has logged 60 cash purchases since then, including six buys on April 1.

At the recommendation of a teacher he wouldn't name, Estep kept copies of the cash purchase receipts. On them, he noted the year and make of the cars and their tag numbers so he could mark in the students' grade books which cars they worked on.

He said he also kept the records to protect himself.

"It was going to eventually come down to the School Board possibly saying, "Who is in violation of the program going on over there _ the instructor or the director?'

"And I had proof . . . that it was not me abusing the opportunity of the shop."

Estep said he kept the file with up to 200 cash receipts in his office at the school. He told WTI officials before Christmas break that he was quitting in January. When he got back to school after the holidays, he said, the file was gone.

Who was minding the shop?

School Superintendent Pete Kelly, who worked at WTI for more than 10 years under Kinard's supervision, said he didn't know the school made cash purchases until the Times raised questions about them.

And the secret work? It was news to him, Kelly said.

Estep said district officials didn't know about it because they didn't ask.

Maher, the assistant superintendent, could have learned about the work last year, when he visited the auto shop in response to a Times report on problems at the school.

"He came in, looked at the statement on the wall on what charges were and how work orders were processed. Then he left," Estep said. "He didn't ask me any questions. He didn't ask me anything _ what the program was doing, what my thoughts were. If he'd asked, I would have told him."

Estep said he believes Maher "had no interest in finding out exactly what was going on, 'cause he'd be stepping on a little family's toes."

Maher acknowledged he didn't talk to Estep. Instead, he talked with the previous shop teacher about problems noted in the Times report, Maher said.

Kinard refused to answer any of the Times' questions about WTI operations.

But Kelly said he spoke to Kinard after learning about the cash transactions.

"He told me to believe in him," Kelly said of his longtime friend and political supporter. "And I told him I would believe in him until the end, until I find that it is incorrect.

"But I will have someone check these allegations out. I'll guarantee you that."

Kelly said he was told by the district's internal auditor that the cash buys were made by students ordering parts for their own vehicles.

Estep disputes that.

"Those jobs were not for students _ I'll testify to that," he said.

"Eighty percent of the students that attend the class don't even drive or have a car. They're high school kids. I had four (older students) with their own vehicles and maybe three high school kids with vehicles."

Davis, a 19-year-old student who will graduate soon, said students didn't use the school for oil changes.

"We all did that in our yards," he said. "It was so much of a hassle for us to try to get work orders (and) Mr. Estep wouldn't let us do it without a work order."

Davis said Estep only allowed students to make small repairs on their cars in emergencies _ "things that were only going to take us, like, 10 minutes to do it, like a flat repair, putting a plug in a tire."

In the 18 months he has been attending the school, Davis said, "we may have brought in 10 (student vehicles) max to work on."

Estep said students had to follow the rules, use work orders for their own car repairs and pay labor charges _ even when it was their own labor. Only non-students could get cheap and speedy service with no work orders and no labor charges.

"That would bother me if that is correct," Kelly said. "And it bothers me greatly that he (Estep) did not let us know that that was an accepted practice over there. That was not accepted by me."

Estep said he believed the school should be of service to the public. When folks called the shop to ask about an oil change or tire rotation, he'd schedule an appointment for them.

Getting Kinard's authorization on a work order could take three days. Estep said he didn't like making people wait that long on small jobs. So he skipped the work order on those jobs, he said, and had the customers pay cash for their supplies.

Estep said he also felt the school should not charge people for the students' labor; he considered that profiteering on student work. On the undocumented jobs, customers weren't charged for the students' labor.

According to last year's fee schedule, the auto shop was supposed to charge $10 an hour for labor on most jobs. The shop fee for oil changes was $5 plus parts and material. With cash purchase records showing 64 oil changes and 247 other jobs, the district likely lost at least $2,790 in labor charges since January of 1997.

That money would have gone into the district's coffers to reimburse the cost of equipping and operating the school.

Estep said he had no ethical concerns about the off-the-books work, so long as it was open to "anybody and everybody." However, he didn't think the shop should be doing regular work for a privileged few. And that's what he saw happening with Kinard, he said.

Learning time compromised

Estep had another concern about the secret work: Kinard didn't check with him before bringing his cars or his friends' cars to the shop.

"He don't even tell me stuff was coming in," Estep said. "Say I had certain things on schedule for the students to work on. Next thing I know, I have four other cars out there, needing to be serviced.

"There were cars, when I'd show up for work, that would have their keys in it with just a list (of work to be done) and parts in the back seat."

Davis, the shop student, said that on some days cars would be lined up when he arrived at school. "We came in some mornings and there's been three cars back there . . . for tire rotation and oil changes," he said.

"Mr. Estep got tired of putting up with all the cars he (Kinard) was bringing in. He'd start yelling at us and telling us to hurry up and get the car out of here and don't tell anybody."

Davis said Estep tried not to pull the advanced students from more complex jobs to do the oil changes. "He'd do them himself or get the younger guys to do it," Davis said.

It was "not helpful" to students to spend their time doing oil changes, according to Davis. "After everyone does one oil change, they know how to do it," he said.

Young, the school graduate, said the WTI classes were a "waste of time." He said he learned complex repair skills when Estep tutored him during his off hours.

In part because of the repeated service work, Young called WTI's $1,600 auto mechanics program "the biggest waste of money I ever paid in my life."

Estep is a certified mechanic who has worked as a technician at an Oldsmobile dealership since 1984, an assistant manager and shop foreman at two Chevrolet dealerships and as service manager and general manager at two auto repair companies.

Now the shop foreman at Ferman Crystal Chevrolet in Crystal River, he said he quit WTI because the school's system kept him from teaching interested students the kinds of skills they needed in the workplace.

Among those who attend the school are problem students in danger of dropping out or struggling with disabilities. It was impossible, he said, to help those students, teach the students without special needs and handle all the unscheduled service work brought to the auto shop.

The WTI program wasn't set up to help kids, Estep said. "If (the school) doesn't let the kids learn what they need to learn,what is the use of even keeping the doors open?"

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