Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
1. Armand, I understand that Enfield Connecticut has made history. Tell us about what happened there?
It started with a newly elected Enfield Board of Education approving the establishment of a citizen audit committee.It may sound very routine; however, to put it bluntly, "all hell broke loose" from various quarters that opposed it.Question three will explain part of what happened.
What prompted the creation of the audit committee was a very determined and extremely courageous board member (whose party took control of the board), Sue Lavelli-Hozempa who had attended one of my many workshops that I conduct throughout the state where I advocate citizen audit committees to get more accountability from school boards and administrators.She was responsible for getting me involved with helping to establish and train the audit committee.
In essence, the purpose of an audit committee is to "assess whether the district is achieving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the employment of available resources."However, there are far too many board members and administrators who want no such oversight as evidenced by the obstacles they put in the way of tax advocates who want more transparency and participation in how school dollars are spent.
The process started with a workshop I conducted for the board on How to Review and Analyze a School Budget.It seemed like a rather non-controversial topic, but not so to some minority board members, not so to the administration, not so to the teacher union, and not so to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents; they all made a concerted and aggressive effort to stop the presentation.Fortunately, their efforts failed.
During the presentation, I outlined guidelines for the establishment of the audit committee so that they would have a clear understanding of exactly what the audit committee would do and that they would have no powers or authority to change anything; all they would do is review and analyze school operations, practices, procedures and policies to see if there were any deficiencies that could be corrected so as to enhance and maximize school human, financial and physical resources.
One of the guidelines was that the audit committee be independent of the board; however, the board ultimately decided to have it as a subcommittee of the board.This meant that all meetings would be open to the public and that a change on the board could simply dissolve the committee.The advantage was that information was easier to obtain along with needed interviews with key school personnel.In addition, it also meant that volunteers could be approved who were not enthusiastic supporters of the audit committee.
I also indicated that there would be no charge for my services and that I would be available to train the audit and direct the committee (without training, an audit committee would flounder).
A further recommendation was that the audit committee should consist of 12-19 members with no required qualifications needed.Seventeen citizens volunteered and were appointed along with two board members as liaisons.
At the next board meeting, it took five hours of heated debate to authorize me to train the audit committee.It certainly indicated how intense the opposition was and how fearful the administration, union, and associations were about having ordinary citizens provide public oversight for their tax dollars.
During the training session, I recommended that they establish five subcommittees to look at specific areas of school operations and provided packets of information and guidance for each subcommittee.At their next meeting, they decided to form four subcommittees and consolidate areas of focus.The four subcommittees were:energy and assets, finance, custodial staffing, and a teacher intern program that would provide better and less expensive substitute teacher coverage.
I thought that they would require some "hand holding" during the process; but, to my delight and absolute surprise, they took off and did an absolutely magnificent and very professional job.It should be noted that no one disputed their findings that centered on mismanagement.
3. Why is this a historic occasion?
There are several reasons.First it is an historical event because it's the first audit committee to be formed in Connecticut; in fact, it is audit committee of this type to be formed in the country because, unlike the few audits committees that can be found elsewhere, it was not limited to fiscal oversight only.It was also designed to start the process of conducting Performance Review Audits defined as:an examination of a program, function, operation or management systems and procedures to assess whether the district is achieving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the employment of available resources."
Unfortunately, boards and administrators are under the mistaken believe that fiscal audits are designed to identify waste and mismanagement of school resources, but fiscal audits are not designed to do so whereas Performance Review Audits are designed to do just that.Unfortunately this mistaken perception gives boards, administrators and the public a false sense of security that fraud and stealing and other problems are not evident.This is one reason why boards and administrators are not providing effective monitoring of school resource utilization
Second, they were provided with training, education and direction.I don't know of any audit committee that has been provided with review and analysis skills.For example, New York legislated the establishment of audit committees in all school districts as of 2006, but no training was provided in the legislation; yet, training was required for school board members.
Third, in spite of the fact that the state school board association, superintendent association and school administration tried to stop it, their determined efforts failed.The question is why were they so fearful of ordinary citizens providing oversight?It can only mean that they have no faith and confidence in their financial practices; otherwise, there would be nothing to fear.
Fourth, the results produced by the audit committee proved that ordinary citizens with no special skills or backgrounds could be trained to identify waste and mismanagement.Since they proved it could be done, why aren't highly paid administrators with considerable credentials able to do the same, and why are boards and superintendents so ill prepared to do a better job of monitoring their operations to ferret out waste and mismanagement?Simply put, they are not educated and trained to do so.
In addition, the audit committee findings and recommendations were done in a very professional manner and presented to a joint meeting of the board of education and the town council over a two day period; this provided full transparency of their efforts.The actual reports will be found at http://www.enfieldschools.org/board_of_education/audit_committee/index.html
4. I understand that there was a state wide memo about you (I should get such notoriety). What did the memo say and where is the truth?
The memo follows with my truthful response to each paragraph.
Date:December 18, 2007
To: Board of Education Chairs
Superintendents of Schools
From:Robert Rader, Executive Director, CABE
David Larson, Executive Director, CAPSS
Re: Dr. Armand A. Fusco, Yankee Institute
This letter is an "fyi" on an issue that has been raised in several districts.
Over the last year, Dr. Armand A. Fusco, now working with the Yankee Institute, has been attempting to speak to school boards and superintendents, claiming that "some degree of corruption is likely to be found in most school districts".He has also been on the radio talking about his latest writing on the subject.
Response:I have not and do not work for the Yankee Institute nor am I on anyone's payroll.In addition, I make no attempt to speak to boards.I would like too, but if they are interested in the information that I am willing to provide at no cost, they would need to contact me as the Enfield Board did.
His definition of corruption is "breach of trust, bribery, crime, crookedness, deceit, deception, dishonesty, exploitation, evil, extortion, fraud, graft, malfeasance, nepotism, payoff, profiteering, tainted, unethical, untrustworthy and unscrupulousness".
Response: This is not my definition of corruption because it is quoted from the 21st Century Thesaurus.I would never have been able to define "corruption" with so many words.Furthermore, they know it is not my definition because the very first thing I did when my book was published (School Corruption:Betrayal of Children and the Public Trust), was to personally deliver a copy to CABE because I wanted them to take up the banner to inform boards that there is a problem of corruption that needs to be addressed through prevention.The very first reference in the book indicates the source of the definition.I am, of course, assuming they read the book since they never returned it.
We believe that his charges are broad brush, unfair, unproven, untrue and frankly, outrageous.His examples are from other states with different fiscal and governmental structures.
Response:My book cites hundreds of corrupt incidents that had taken place in districts all over the U.S. and that included Connecticut.In addition, all the incidents are documented and supported by over 800 references.
The part that is fascinating is their statement that the hundreds of incidents cited were from states with 'different fiscal and governmental structures." This statement is shear nonsense. Let's examine it with facts. There are roughly 16,000 districts in the U.S., every district has a school board, every district has a superintendent, and they all share one other critical factor—budgeted money can only be spent by writing a check that is found in a check register.In other words, there are no financial or structural differences to account for the corruption that has taken place (and continues to take place).It is the lack of effective monitoring of district operation and this is the result of being in denial
Generally, we would not respond to such over-the-top, widely inaccurate and unfair comments but, it is hard to imagine a more one-sided attack on those who serve voluntarily as elected school board members and their staffs, who work tirelessly to ensure the best education possible for the State's children.The attacks are so far removed from the reality of public schools that we see no common ground to even have a conversation on this subject.
Response:They claim that what I have reported and documented is so far removed from reality is itself not based on the reality.By any common sense measure, specific incidents supported by hundreds of references represent reality not fiction.
Are they also suggesting that what others have also documented with hundreds of more references in: Battling School Corruption in America's Public Schools, Corrupt Schools, Corrupt Universities:What Can Be Done?, and White Chalk Crime does not represent reality?
If they do not believe that corruption is a pervasive problem, how do they explain the shocking findings of pervasive corruption by a Special Suffolk County Grand Jury that examined every school district in Suffolk County, LI, NY that involved interviewing over 500 witnesses over two years?
How do they explain the fact that the states where performance audits are conducted of school districts have always made recommendations to save thousands and millions of dollars?They can't make such recommendations unless they found waste and mismanagement.
Finally, how do they explain the fact that a survey conducted in the 48 contiguous states of almost 500 school districts that asked school officials the dollar value of lost assets every year admitted that it amounts to $250,000 in the typical district and over $1,4000,000 in urban districts?
If all of this is not proven and documented reality, then I don't know what is!The fact is that if they were doing the job for school boards by providing information and training about this problem, it would not be so pervasive.Instead, they prefer to be in denial and attack the messenger because the message cannot be disputed.
We thought it important that you be aware of Dr. Fusco's attempts to speak to school boards.His attacks and those of the Yankee Institute are relentless on the public schools and those who govern and administer the schools.Should you be approached, please feel free to call on us for further information.
Response:I have attacked no one; I am simply stating reality and facts.Furthermore, I have not and do not solicit school boards for a very practical reason—it costs me money to conduct workshops since I do not charge for my services. Furthermore, the message of "corruption" no matter how it is phrased or presented is not what they want to hear.
Finally, the ending is interesting:"to call them for further information."If they had more to say, they would have said it.Enough said!
5. Why are there certain bodies that seem to be opposed to these types of audits?
The answer is that it will expose two very serious problems.The first is that there is a lack of comprehensive and effective training of school administrators in terms of financial management, organizational development and Total Quality Management methodologies.Second, it will expose the failure of the associations to provide information and training to their members in financial and organizational skills so that they can effectively monitor school operations.They may know education, but do not really know how to manage multi-million dollar school systems to protect and maximize resources.
Just two examples will suffice:How many board members know How to Review and Analyze the most important financial document--the check register?The recent $12,000,000 embezzlement that occurred in Roslyn, NY over a period of several years could have been stopped in the first month had the board known how to analyze a check register; half of the stolen funds were accounted for through false invoices and the reminder through credit cards.This lack of knowledge is to be found wherever embezzlement has taken place.Also, how many board members know How to Review and Analyze the most important staffing document—the teacher master schedule to determine how staff is allocated and misallocated?
Of course, the unions are also fearful because excessive staffing and unnecessary and outdated programs, if identified and honestly evaluated, could lead to layoffs or positions not being filled when vacant.This would result in less union members and probably increased class sizes.
6. I served on a budget committee and the phrase was " Are we getting the most " bang for our buck ". Is the average taxpayer getting the most for their money in your opinion?
Absolutely and positively not!There are numerous examples. California spent billions to lower class sizes with the hopes that academic performance would improve particularly in the urban districts.Of course, it has not.In fact, it compounded the problems because the less experienced teachers ended up in the urban districts because experienced teachers fled to openings in the suburbs.More importantly, where is the substantial and compelling evidence to show the exact size of a class that will improve instruction and, would the same size be appropriate for every subject area?Such compelling evidence does not exist, but billions are wasted chasing this myth.
Some states and districts are now providing merit pay if teachers improve test scores.There is one fundamental fallacy with this.All of the evidence, none of which is disputed, indicates that the primary reason why the urban districts score the lowest is because of the socio-economic conditions of students.For decades teachers have been supported in their claim that they have no control over such conditions.So how are test scores "supposedly" raised if no changes have been made in the socio-economic conditions?
Billions of dollars were spent on the development of middle schools; and today, there is a trend away from middle schools.
Billions more have been allocated to improve teacher salaries and for additional staffing with no commensurate improvement in student achievement--the U.S. still does not rank favorably with other developed countries or with the National Assessment of Education Progress test results..
7. Was there any one specific area where there seemed to be a lot of waste or (gasp! ) should I say it? corruption or mismanagement of funds?
The reality is that there are specific areas in all school districts where waste and mismanagement can be found and, of course, the most dollar waste and mismanagement is to be found in staffing and its related costs.The Enfield Audit Committee did not delve deeply into this area because it would have proven to be extremely controversial.In addition,lack of asset management, lack of effective purchasing policies, credit card abuse, misuse of federal and state grants, and payroll abuse are some of the prime areas that breed-the-greed and the waste.
8. Can simple parents, electricians, carpenters and plumbers be trained to look at these long rows and columns and figures and figure out where the money is going, and if it is going for the right purposes?
Absolutely, providing that they are educated and trained in the process of performance review and analysis and understand that the evidence is overwhelming that districts are not being monitored effectively to determine if resources are being maximized!Certainly, the Enfield Audit Committee proved that ordinary citizens with no special qualifications to serve on the audit committee can do a very commendable job of reviewing and analyzing operations, practices, procedures and policies.It is undisputed proof that ordinary citizens can be trained to know what to look for and how to look for it—no rocket science is involved.
9. What advice, guidance, assistance did you provide in this realm?
The committee members were given an orientation to the fiscal review and performance review processes and provided with considerable background about the fact that there is a pervasive problem of mismanagement and waste that every district should be active in identifying and correcting.In addition, each subcommittee was provided with packets of materials that provided them with the necessary information and guidelines to perform their tasks.
10. What question have I neglected to ask ?The obvious question is whether citizen audit committees are an emerging trend?
Absolutely!The problem that taxpayer advocates have had over the years is that they did not know (1) the questions to ask of boards and administrators (2) where and how to look for mismanagement of resources (3) the many free resources available to assist them such as Performance Reviews and Best Practices (4) how to organize for results because they had not model to follow and (5) that there are really no costs involved to do what is necessary.Of course, they now have a model of how they can provide public oversight of district resource utilization--the Enfield Audit Committee.
They also know that there are only two ways to effectively review and analyze school operations, procedures, practices and policies to determine if resources are utilized effectively and being maximized.The first is using the ten questions found in Ending Corruption and Waste in Your Public Schools:A Manual for Taxpayers (free download at yankeeinstitute.org). The second is to conduct Performance Review Audits independent of the district so as to have objectivity in the review and analysis process.Both can be done by a citizen audit committee.
What will also encourage the establishment of audit committees is that taxes, particularly property taxes, are becoming too burdensome particularly during these tough economic times; as a result, resistance to school budget increases is a source of real concern to taxpayers who are demanding more accountability and transparency; and the audit committee process is the only way it can be done.
Pulished July 29, 2008
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