For the good of the district, ISD 2142 school board must fulfill its oversight role
We hear plenty these days about the need for more accountability in schools. It’s typically aimed at teachers to ensure students leave school with the knowledge and tools they will need to thrive.
But a school’s administration must also be accountable. And ISD 2142 is failing miserably in that regard.
The school board is legally obligated to provide oversight of the district, but that’s nearly impossible when school board members are routinely kept in the dark, or actively misled, by school administration on important matters.
A good case in point is the district’s current fiscal crisis. Board members were shocked to learn this past year that the district was operating deeply in the red and that its unreserved general fund account was slated to run nearly dry by the end of the current school year. It was a surprise to board members because for months, the superintendent and business manager had assured the board that the district could afford the new spending initiatives the superintendent proposed. Instead, the administration was running the district’s finances into the ground. By the time board members realized what was happening, it was too late to take many of the corrective actions that could have lessened the budget crisis.
Whether administrators deliberately misled board members or failed to grasp the impact the spending would have on the district’s bottom line is unclear, but neither scenario bodes well for ISD 2142.
There have been numerous other examples where the district’s top administrators have disregarded the board’s important oversight role.
Six months ago, the board asked for a report explaining why the district did not appear to be realizing the operational cost savings they had been promised as a result of consolidating the AlBrook and Cotton schools into the new South Ridge School. It was an important question for the board to be asking, but many months later, the business manager has failed to produce the requested report.
It’s the same story with the board’s request for a report on recent educational investments made by the district, such as the purchase of iPads and curriculum consulting services. More than six months later, the board has seen no such report.
Far more troubling is the business manager’s failure to provide regular financial updates to the board. At a retreat nearly two years ago, the board requested quarterly financial updates, which was something they had not been getting up to that point. Most school boards receive monthly financial reports, so a request for a quarterly accounting of revenues and expenditures was hardly onerous.
But this school board still can’t get so much as a quarterly report and when financial information is finally presented to the board, it is usually in such an abbreviated form that it’s virtually meaningless. It certainly provides no opportunity for the board to have any substantive input into spending decisions, or to provide the oversight that the law requires of school board members.
This troubling lack of budget information was underscored yet again during a study session last week, when board Chairman Robert Larson questioned why Community Education directors were not kept up to date on the funds available to them in their budgets.
The board was told that Community Ed directors could contact the business manager to see if they had any money left in their budgets, which is a ridiculous and inefficient suggestion to say the least.
Board members need to get a handle on this situation. The district’s auditors have already cited the district’s lack of segregation of financial duties and recommended a corrective action plan, which includes additional board oversight to partially compensate for the deficiency. But a board that lacks current financial information is not capable of providing oversight. Unless the board starts demanding it, they may as well toss the auditors’ recommendations in the trash.
Board members share responsibility for failing to demand more accountability from their administrators. When the board sits quietly as it is shut out of the process on what should be board-level decisions (such as the elimination of activity buses) or doesn’t receive requested information, it is signaling its approval for the administration to continue to run roughshod over board prerogatives.
A few board members at recent sessions have spoken up, but lack the majority they need to produce the sea change so necessary in the district. Board members need to remember they represent the taxpayers, students and parents at ISD 2142 and their role is to provide oversight to ensure the district is on the right track financially and educationally. It’s not micromanagement to demand answers to questions nor should it be perceived as undermining administrators when the board asserts its authority to set priorities and policies for the district. That’s what the board was elected to do, not just serve as a rubber stamp to a runaway administration.