Pennsylvania’s Kids Aboard ‘Rudderless Ship,’ Audit Finds


Pennsylvania state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat elected to be the state’s fiscal watchdog, supervised a new audit report that has disclosed management troubles in the state Department of Education and its Board of Education. Peter Jackson of The Associated Press reports the audit covered the period between July 1, 2010 and August 1, 2015, during which former Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, made significant state education spending cuts.

The “Basic Education Master Plan”, the board’s outline for education policy across the state, was found not to have been updated for 16 years. Even though the Pennsylvania School Code mandates that the plan be updated every five years, it had not happened because of “misdirected leadership”, according to DePasquale. This oversight means the state does not currently have a systematic plan in place.

“If (the board) had actively updated its plan, it would have better positioned itself as a leader in developing educational police, instead of relying on gubernatorial convened commissions of stakeholders, whose agenda were controlled” outside of the board, the audit says.

In a response to the statement, Board of Education Chairman Larry Wittig said the board had insufficient resources and had been burdened with too many new responsibilities by the Legislature. He added that the use of the words “misdirected leadership” seemed to be DePasquale’s opinion, not a fact.

The audit also found 561 academically struggling schools serving 310,000 students who were not receiving adequate special state assistance because the department had not  identified “poorly performing” schools and had, instead, been basing assistance on federal guidelines. Auditors said:

“PDE needs to reinvent its brand and provide better direct outreach to school and district leadership,”

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said he hoped the report would reveal the need for the state to invest in educational resources.

Auditors claim the department did not monitor retired state employees who worked for the department on a short-term emergency basis. The issue was that these employees were not to remain on the payroll longer than the 95-day maximum allowed each year. The audit researchers found one violation of this rule, but the audit also uncovered a lack of effective monitoring of these employees by the department.

DePasquale added that the PDE was the “least cooperative” agency he had ever worked with, and that the children of Pennsylvania are currently aboard a “rudderless ship.”

“Our job is to give every one of those kids an equal shot,” says DePasquale, “it’s not an equal outcome, but an equal shot, and right now that is not happening in Pennsylvania.”

WPMT-TV’s Katie Kyros reported that the auditor general said just labeling schools is not enough, and that the department has to come up with ways to deal with the problem.  He stated that former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis received $140,000 for his role as “special advisor” for a year, but he did not have a job description, nor could the department verify his whereabouts. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review says Tomalis was monitored by the department starting in October 2013.

PDE spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman issued a statement:

“Every child deserves access to a quality education in a safe and healthy environment—that is a goal the department strives for each day. Department of Education leadership has reviewed the auditor general’s findings and recommendations, and is addressing any necessary corrective action to ensure equitable access to a quality education for students across the commonwealth.”

DePasquale looked at 3,000 schools and found that 814 had School Performance Profile scores below 70, which is the score the former Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq assigned as passing. Rivera responded that the report covered a period of time when funding was low, and current Governor Tom Wolf hopes to find ways to help low-performing schools, Mary Niederberger and Bill Schackner report for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.