PROVO — The former principal of Timpview High School defended football coach Louis Wong Thursday against many of the allegations that led to the coach's suspension this week.
George Bayles admitted that "money was not my strong suit as an administrator," but insisted he never took improper reimbursements as an audit suggested and said he, Wong and others at the school followed policies as they understood them.
But Bayles also said he believes the financial controversy at the Provo school began over feelings of jealousy.
"I think this all started over the football field," Bayles said, referring to an expensive new artificial turf field installed at Timpview in the summer of 2006 that was paid for by boosters.
Such feelings intensified when Wong raised money for and built a football center, a building adjacent to the high school's stadium that houses the coaches' offices and a place to watch the games. Then last year, came the construction of a controversial and state-of-the-art weight room at Timpview.
Bayles said some Provo parents complained to the district that it was unfair that Timpview was the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by Wong. Instead, some suggested the donated money should be shared with Provo High as well as other schools in the district.
"I think the weight room was probably just the last straw," Bayles said. "But the patrons of Provo got the ear of the superintendent. That's what's behind this whole thing — the fact that our boosters raised so much money. They put (Provo School District Superintendent Randall Merrill) in a corner, and rather than just stand there and say, 'Timpview has done this on their own,' he looked for reasons why we shouldn't or what we'd done wrong."
Bayles said Merrill questioned them, even though the superintendent had approved the project by email. But Merrill told the Deseret News in January that Timpview had built the weight room without district involvement.
Merrill said the district knew that supporters wanted to donate money for the weight room. But the district didn't know the school went ahead and began construction. "When we found out that they were getting ready to (build), I called them up and said, 'You just can't start building a building on our property without approval process,'" Merrill said.
That began a discussion with Wong and Bayles about how large donations were handled and the fact that the district didn't have policies and procedures to accept them.
"There was no process to donate because no one has ever donated this extraordinarily generous gift," Merrill said, referring to the weight room.
The controversy that arose from that caused Merrill to request a state audit of the activities funds at both high schools. That led, in part, to Merrill resigning in January.
After the audit was finished, the Provo School District conducted a more in-depth investigation of Timpview's football program. Wong, a four-time state champion coach at Timpview, was suspended without pay Tuesday and may be fired in 30 days.
While no Provo School District officials or school board members will comment on the firing, the coach's dismissal came after a state audit and subsequent district probe alleged a number of questionable financial transactions.
Such allegations include: charging personal car repairs to the school; failure to run background checks on some assistant coaches; failure to secure pre-authorization for travel; questionable reimbursement for personal expenses, meals and gifts when working for an outside agency; inconsistent and inadequate receipts and records; as well as soliciting and accepting personal compensation from a clothing company.
Wong insisted he hasn't done anything wrong and that he is being fired for common practices within the district. He told the Deseret News on Wednesday that he will appeal the suspension and fight efforts to fire him from a job he's had for 14 years.
Bayles defended Wong and Timpview administrators against many of the allegations raised by the audit. He said he and others believed they were conducting business and raising money by the book.
"I'm going to tell you right now, we never did anything at all without getting permission from the district," said Bayles, who is currently serving an LDS mission with his wife in North Carolina.
He is heartbroken over the controversy swirling around the school he led for 10 years.
"I feel very bad and the reason I feel bad, first of all, is that my family is just getting slaughtered and there's nothing I can do about it," he said. "The charges are out there and, no matter what happens, some of this will never go away. One of the things I've always been able to hang my hat on is my integrity. And now that's gone."
The former principal is concerned about the school's staff, some of whom could face disciplinary action as the district's investigation continues. The audit criticized the school for a lack of oversight and a failure to follow district financial policies.
The district's investigation found that Bayles approved 17 of the questionable transactions, assistant principal Brad Monks approved 22, assistant principal Rene Cunningham approved five. Twelve of the signatures approving questionable transactions were illegible, according to the district's financial review.
Bayles confirmed that he gave Wong approval to sign an Under Armour contract that gave Wong $1,500 in clothing allowances, which auditors suggested could be a violation of the "Public Officers and Employees Ethics Act." It forbids public employees from taking "bonuses or incentives from vendors, potential vendors … where there may be the appearance of a conflict of interest or impropriety."
Bayles said he didn't consider the contract a violation of that law.
"I never saw that as personal," said Bayles. "What I understood … it was an agreement with him for money to purchase equipment and coaching clothing. I never thought of it as violating that gift policy. It wasn't a cash donation for him. It covered his entire staff."
Bayles also said he never took improper reimbursements as the audit suggests. For example, one of the questionable reimbursements was airfare for his wife to a conference in Atlanta that Bayles and 10 teachers attended.
"When I booked the flights so we'd all be together," he said, "my wife reimbursed the school for her personal flight."
The audit raised questions about a price difference in one of the hotel rooms and suggested it might be because someone had stayed extra days. Bayles said everyone left the same day and he never asked to be reimbursed for personal expenses from the trip.
When it came to financial manners, Bayles said he felt he had inadequate training from the district, a concern Wong shares.
"Money was not my strong suit as administrator," he said. "That's never been a secret. But I thought we were OK. We were doing what we'd been instructed to do."
Bayles added that if mistakes were made, they were not malicious.
"We were never insubordinate," Bayles said. "We never tried to take money that belonged to the school."
But Provo School District business manager Kerry Smith said the district did provide adequate training twice a year to school administrators. And district officials admonished school administrators to train any employee that handled money.
"Every year in August, the superintendent and I spend three days discussing administrative duties with all principals (including assistants)," Smith said. "Part of that is always a review of the (district) audit. Year after year we gave specific instructions to them about financial policies."
Bayles said yearly audits of Timpview never showed any significant concerns.
The state audit also indicated that four district employees and five "volunteer" coaches at Timpview did not undergo background checks, as required by state law. Wong's lawyer said state law gives this responsibility to the superintendent or his/her designee.
Bayles, however, is adamant that all coaches knew that was a hard and fast rule and that it applied to anyone working with children — not just athletics. He said that as a principal, it was something he was very strict and very clear about
"I passed that information on, and in my opinion the coach is responsible (for such checks)," he said. "The coach should not hire or let anybody coach if they don't pass a background check. ... Now a volunteer is more difficult to track and in the middle of the season or with other things going on, I guess it could be missed."
He said he doesn't know if that happened at Timpview, but if it did, it was a mistake, not a "flagrant ignoring of the rule."
Bayles was hired to lead Timpview when Chad Van Orden, now an assistant coach, was the team's head coach. Bayles said a couple of years into his tenure as principal, the two approached him about trading jobs. He said he agreed to hire Wong as head coach and retain Van Orden as an assistant and the program "didn't miss a beat."
"Nothing changed except that Lou did all of the things that Lou did and Chad didn't," said Bayles. "That's not to criticize Chad. Lou is an innovator and a fundraiser, and once we started winning championships, people wanted to get involved."
Offers of financial support grew as the team continued to be one of the state's best. The first benefit to the football program was a new turf field funded exclusively by donations.
"I saw what happened with the sport turf field and the way he was able to generate support," said Bayles. "And I thought he could be a benefit to the entire school, even the district."
He said times were always tough and he was always struggling to meet the needs of his students and teachers.
"We were struggling every year," he said.
Bayles confirmed that he asked Wong to work on fundraising for part of his workday and even gave him a free period from teaching driver education to do so. But he said his vision was much bigger than what Wong could do for football.
'It was never intended to be just that," Bayles said. "His focus initially was football, but he said, 'As soon as I get done with the things I want to do for football, I can help the entire school.'"
Wong's ability to raise money freed up school money being used to support football so Bayles could use it on other school expenses.
"My vision of it was more school-wide than we ever really got into," he said. "But it was all for the good of the school."
Bayles acknowledge there may have been a difference of opinion about whether or not fundraising money was public money. He saw it as different than money generated through tax dollars or participation fees.
According to the state audit, money generated through fundraising is indeed public money and subject to all the same rules as funds generated through taxes or other traditional means.
"Money, funds and accounts, regardless of the source from which (these) are derived, that are owned, held or administered by the state or any of its … school districts" are public funds, as defined by state law. "All funds received into a public entity, regardless of sources, are subject to the rules and accounting procedures that apply to public funds."
And finally, Bayles said Wong actually offered to help Provo High's football program and the district with fundraising efforts.
"He said, 'I'll fundraise for the whole district'," said Bayles. "Just pay me to do it full time and I'll fundraise for all of the schools.' They never took him up on the invitation."
Bayles is devastated that the reputation of good, hardworking individuals is now stained. The decision to retire was not an easy one.
"Nobody loved their job more than I did," he said. "I loved it — every day."