CAROL STEPHENS suspected something almost from the moment in June when she saw the bounced-check fee on her online bank statement.

Three days earlier, the Hunting Park woman had deposited a $500 scholarship check awarded to her son, Kean Stephens, when he graduated from Bok Technical High School.

It was one of five checks issued by Bok for scholarships funded by Pacifico Car Dealership in Southwest Philadelphia.

"My first thought was, 'Somebody took the money,' " Stephens said. "Doesn't make sense."

After other parents began complaining about the same problem, the Philadelphia School District and city police department's Major Crimes Unit are now looking into $25,000 in missing scholarship money from Bok, the Daily News has learned.

"We're trying to determine where the money went and who took it. Who's responsible?" Inspector General John Downs asked last week. "We're not naming anyone at this point."

Authorities are focused on a former Bok employee who was laid off in June because of budget cutbacks, Downs said. The Daily News is not naming the worker, who was in charge of maintaining the school's student funds' account, because the person has not been charged with a crime.

"We feel there is one person responsible for this," Downs said, adding that an undisclosed amount of the money was returned in the summer, when the worker found out an audit was being conducted.

If investigators find the former employee stole from the fund, it would be at least the third person in four years accused of embezzling money meant to help students at a Philadelphia school.

* Robin Harkins, a bookkeeper for six years at Germantown High School, resigned in March 2008 and was charged two months later with stealing $23,000 from the high school's student-activity funds.

The money was for athletic uniforms, proms and five academic scholarships, among other things.

Harkins, now 47, received five years' probation. She paid full restitution of $23,023.72 on the day of her sentencing in June 2009.

* Six months after Harkins' arrest, Greg Wade, the former president of the citywide Home and School Council, was arrested for stealing nearly $120,000.

He received up to 23 months of house arrest and 54 months of probation in August 2009. Wade, now 57, was ordered to pay back $118,000 to his victims, including the council. As of September, he still owes $115,004.

The missing money was to be used to purchase supplies and equipment, and came from bake sales, candy sales and similar fundraising activities.

Both the state Auditor General's Office and the City Controller's Office have hammered the district for failing to follow their own procedures and policies when it comes to its schools' student activity funds. Across the district, there was a combined total of $5.5 million in the schools' funds as of May 2011, according to the Controller.

Such "weak management practices can create opportunities for fraud," the 2011 auditor general's report read. "The district must ensure that student funds are properly protected."

"The lack of proper oversight invites the potential for fraud, waste and mismanagement," City Controller Alan Butkovitz said.

Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said that he's well aware of the lax financial controls.

"We know that many, many of the schools are fine. A lot of the controls aren't there, but I don't want [anyone] to infer that everyone is on the take," Knudsen said. "They're doing what they have to do to be honest. . . . We don't have the controls that we want or need to be sure that we have it covered 100 percent."

He said the district will begin phasing in a new way to oversee school-level financial transactions in January. The plan - which involves hiring five accounting and control monitors to replace 10 regional business specialists that lost their jobs due to budget cuts last year - also includes merging the schools' various computers system. That overhaul would begin in July, Knudsen said.

"We have no common mechanism to access what's going on," Knudsen said. "What I want is transparency. We need to see what's going on. Right now, we can't do that. In the end, however, the primary custodian of student funds is each school."