DES MOINES, IOWA — Craig Nelson, a former horticulture teacher who oversaw the Des Moines Public Schools’ greenhouse operations, is accused of misspending more than $19,000 – and possibly more – in a report released by State Auditor Rob Sand on Thursday. That includes more than $18,000 paid to Nelson’s wife to serve as his assistant and $1,300 in misspent Menards rebates.
Nelson worked for DMPS as its horticulture teacher and manager of its greenhouse operations from August 2007 until he was placed on administrative leave in May 2020. He was fired by the district earlier this year. The district requested assistance from the State Auditor’s office at that time to review greenhouse finances.
In his position, Nelson was solely responsible for operating the greenhouse – including running the district’s annual plant sale and organizing an annual international trip for students. In May 2016, Nelson was given permission to hire an assistant as an independent contractor – Nataliya Korotsil. Nelson did not disclose to the district at the time of her hiring that she was his spouse. Korotsil was paid $18,223 from April 2016 (before her actual hire date) and May 2020. According to the audit, Korotsil’s pay is considered “misspending” because she was hired in violation of the district’s nepotism rules. Korotsil’s job duties included greenhouse assistance and bookkeeping help despite most greenhouse work being completed by volunteers and the district staffing numerous bookkeeping professionals.
The audit investigation also found $1,394 in Menards rebates collected by Nelson for purchases made using a school-issued pay-card. Those rebates were delivered Nelson’s home despite being earned on purchases made for the district.
The audit report also pointed to incomplete bookkeeping by Nelson for both the annual district plant sale and an international trip for students. Nelson told school officials that he didn’t keep receipts for all cash purchases during the sale and would only report one lump sum of cash sales per day. These sums were reported after Nelson took the cash home with him for the night – a violation of school policy. While the audit doesn’t identify any missing funds from the plant sale, it does note that sales figures increased significantly in 2021 – without Nelson’s involvement – compared to previous years that he spear-headed the event.
The report also noted improper bookkeeping practices by Nelson surrounding international trips for students. Nelson would collect cash and checks from the students throughout the year to pay for incidental items related to the trip. Most of that money was returned to students as promised, but Nelson used a private bank account to manage the money in violation of district policies.
No criminal charges have been filed against Nelson. He is no longer employed by the district. The audit recommends that DMPS strengthen its controls and make all employees aware of its policies – including documenting disbursements and avoiding nepotism.