Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How You Turn A Town, County, Or School District Around?

How you Turn a Town, County Government
or School District Around
By Sisyphus

  In Oklahoma we're facing a revenue failure and that will affect all of us, especially our school districts.   So how do you become aware that there is a problem in your local school district? What are the danger signs. 

  We found in our small community and district, people talking to each other, asking questions of  others who work or worked in public education,  from those on the board, your superintendent and looking at state department of education financial reports and the school audit reports.   The open record law can be used to answer questions when school officials seem to drag their feet with answers you seek.  Attend the school board meetings; monitor the financial reports that SHOULD be posted with each school agenda.  You will begin to see a trend in spending and hiring that often times lead to further concern.

  How did our small district get into this financial problem:  3 board members hired a man who wanted to turn our small town school into a supper spending, trendy metro school.  Those 3 board members 100% supported everything he proposed.  They failed to question him on spending to the degree that citizens wanted, they allowed him to be the purchasing agent for the school,  to add educational programs without research if they would increase enrollment and if there was an interest in the program, to hire support staff without advertising the position.  They totally took his word for what he did, with very few questions about expense and outcome.

It looked all rosy at first but then things became alarming, the community began to ask questions.  Why was the long time treasured removed from the job,  and a secretary in his office assumed the job, why was the superintendent always hiring advisors, why did the district change school auditors each year, why were those considered part of the 'good old boy system" hired for jobs that were added to the staff, the state test scores started dropping, the healthy carry over from year to year began an alarmingly  decline, questions on transportation bond funds were raised and then the straw that really broke the back:  the superintendent created a job for his wife, did not advertise the job and she was hired. The longtime principal of that building retired midyear followed at that time of year by the resignation of the superintendent's wife.  The morale in the district was at an all time low.

  Reaction from the community:  attendance at the board meetings grew, people were not happy with the behavior of the board members as the meetings became hostile against those who spoke out and one board member who questioned the superintendent's actions, and a large number of students were withdrawn from the district to be home schooled.  There was little confidence in the financial reports at the board meetings, that are also posted online with the monthly agenda. 

  When this superintendent proposed at bond issue with projects that were "dream items" and would have raised our taxes 23% for 30 years, we knew we had to act.  We defeated the bond issue by a 2 to 1 margin.  We knew that there were deep concerns in this community.
So we began to look at other actions we could take, to return this district to a financially stable district.

   It was recommended that we contact the state auditor about our concerns.  A meeting was set up, we presented our information, the state auditor and his staff checked out our information, verified figures and told us we qualified for a petition to get support from the community for an audit. We got the number of signatures needed and waited about six months for the audit to begin.  The audit's cost to the district was to be between $25,000 to $40,000, and those who unconditionally supported the superintendent called it a waste of funds and a witch hunt.  Well that audit began in August of '16, people in the community were interviewed and the auditors dug through the school records.  The cost is up to over $40,000.  We expected the audit to be finished after Christmas..   It's late February and we are still waiting on the outcome of the audit.  As it has been extended in time, we feel that they have found some issues of concern.   If I concerns were based on financial abuse, this information will go to the district attorney and could lead to charges.

  You cannot do a recall petition and remove all the board members or several at a time.  You have to remove them one at a time.  We replaced one last February and earlier this month we replaced a superintendent supporter with a third board member who also wants transparency in the district.  Our district will change, after at least a year of calling for this embattled superintendent to resign, questioning at the board meetings in the public comment section about his spending…..he resigned in December, effective the end of June.  It can't come soon enough.

  So now with a majority of 3-2 on the board, board members who are listening to the community, we search for a new superintendent.  There is one candidate that the 2 board members would have hired the night of the superintendent's resignation; but the 3 still in control wanted interviews.  That process could end on Thursday night and if not by next month.  Then this district can start to recover. It will take several years to rebuild, renew the faith of the community and parents and bring up the enrollment.

  It's too late for all the teachers who took jobs in other districts, the support staff that also left and for all who retired.  They have left the community.  A large number of students transferred to adjoining districts, attending private school or being homeschooled.  Hopefully with a new superintendent and the goals of the new majority on the board this district will return to a stable small community.

  In summary: monitor the financial health of your school or local government.  Learn to read the public record financial reports and ask questions and if you don't get an answer, keep asking those who understand the working of that agency.  Remember that the school or city audits can also answer questions about the health of the organization.  Replace board members and elected officials if they don't seem to be carrying out the interest and will of the citizens.  And real concerns can lead to a state audit and possible criminal charges or at least a change in how business is done.

  After all these elected officials need to be reminded: they work for US, the taxpayers.