Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reading the Spencer-East Brookfield report

I've been perusing the DESE report on Spencer-East Brookfield, as reported on by the T&G last night. In terms of School Committee responsibilities, I'd say it's eye-opening.

In particular, on page 14, under "Challenges and Areas of Growth," the first finding is:
The school committee did not carry out important responsibilities to oversee the school district budget and hold the former superintendent accountable for performing his responsibilities.    
A. According to the school committee members, they had not fulfilled their responsibilities in that they had not overseen the former superintendent as they should have. Some examples mentioned by school committee members were:   1. not asking for detailed information or questioning or challenging the former superintendent about the proposed fiscal year 2013 school budget and the manner in which it was prepared;   2. not following past practice and having a school committee member or the superintendent present the budget at the annual town meeting;   3. not inquiring about or approving new positions added to the school department staff;   4. not holding the district accountable for providing complete monthly expenditure accounts from August to November 2012; and   5. not evaluating the former superintendent. 
As deliberating and passing the budget, and evaluating the superintendent are two of the main three roles of the School Committee, that's a devastating assessment.

Regarding the particular budgetary complications of Spencer-East Brookfield, the report (page 13) says this:
A. The former business administrator reported to the then school committee chair that the fiscal year 2013 budget prepared by the superintendent had serious errors. The business administrator was dismissed by the superintendent at the beginning of fiscal year 2013 over the objections of the school committee. 
emphasis mine.
The business administrator was ignored by the superintendent regarding the budget, took the matter to the next level of authority, and then lost his job for it.
I have to say I'm a little confused by this; business official contracts are with the School Committee, not the superintendent, so it's not clear to me how this happened. 

If you saw the December 4 meeting of the Worcester School Committee, you heard John Crafton from the Mass Association of School Business Officials come in and talk about our CFO in Worcester, Brian Allen. A lot of what he spoke about that evening was integrity. Rightfully so, of course, because the job of managing millions of dollars of public funds to provide basic services to children is one that embodies incredible trust of the community in that or in those individuals. It's the professional--the business manager--who knows where the dollars can and can't be used, knows when the money is coming in and going out, and ultimately knows if the budget's going to work at all.
The line of responsibility ultimately, and legally, is with the School Committee, though. It is up to the School Committee to know enough--or to learn enough to know enough--to ask where the money is being used, to ask when and where it's coming from, and to figure out if the budget's going to work. If you don't get trained (as required under the Ed Reform Act), then you may not know that's your job. If you don't go to sessions, or don't ask questions, or don't press for more information, even, or, I would say, especially if that's not popular, then you can't possibly know enough to decide if the budget allocations are right and if the budget is doing the best you can with what you have to get where you want to be.
That is a basic part of the job, though. School committees in Massachusetts vote the budget. It's what we're elected to do. We owe our jobs the same integrity that is required of our financial managers.
As Henry Clay put it in 1829:
Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.

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