Fiscal Watch Designation and Appeal
The State Department of Education has placed the district on Fiscal Watch status. The board voted to appeal that decision. Because I am concerned about how we got here, I voted against appealing this designation.
The Board Was Not Informed About the SDE Audit
We learned during the board meeting that the administration knew sometime in August or September that the State Department of Education would audit the district. I believe the administration should have informed the board as soon as the administration knew about this. We were not. And then, the actual audit occurred over a period of weeks in September or October, and the State Department issued a report in November. The administration kept the board in the dark about all of this until December 6th when the existence of the audit and the report became public. The board can’t do its job in these circumstances.
We Were Warned About P-Card Problems
In 2021, the internal auditor conducted an audit of the P-Card program.
First, the internal auditor found numerous problems with the P-Card program. In fact, the State Department–in 2022–found many of the same specific problems that were raised over a year a half ago.
Ultimately, our auditor concluded in 2021 that “The amount of p-card purchases (over 2 million in 2020) compared to purchases through the regular requisition/invoice payment process (well over 100 million) suggests that the potential financial impact may be minimal. However, continuous non-compliance increases the risk of inappropriate purchases which may increase regulatory scrutiny. Also, potential adverse public relations impact outweighs the financial impact.”
As it related to the criminal referral of the procurement manager, the auditor stated that “although the egregious actions of the manager and the overall facts of the case support termination and referral to law enforcement for potential criminal prosecution, we cannot overlook the fact that control breakdowns within procurement and p-card processes enhanced the manager’s ability to commit the alleged crimes.”
We Did Nothing
Because of the internal auditor’s concerns, in February of 2022 I asked that we, as a board, schedule a work session or set it on a meeting agenda so that we could perform our oversight role and address these issues. That never happened. I also specifically requested that the board be provided with the administration’s internal investigation. That request was denied.
The State Department’s Initial Involvement
Several months later in Spring 2022, the State Department of Education indicated its concern about City of Columbia criminal investigation and said it was considering placing the district on Fiscal Watch status. Ultimately, the State Department determined that it would not place the district on fiscal watch status because the City of Columbia police investigation did not qualify as an investigation by a “state agency” and, therefore, did not trigger the relevant statute.
A month or so later, the City of Columbia Police Department transferred the case to SLED. According to the Attorney General’s office, this occurred because the district refused to cooperate with the investigation. When SLED encountered similar resistance, it empaneled a statewide grand jury. Ironically, this transfer to a state agency flagged the district for another review by the State Department.
Appeal of Fiscal Watch Determination
So, the internal auditor’s concerns about increased regulatory scrutiny and public relations problems have now come to pass. The board voted to appeal the State Department’s decision, because it felt that the identified issues were insufficient to warrant the fiscal watch designation. Appearances matter, and I believe this vote makes things worse, not better. I believe the better course would be for the board to take on the responsibility of ensuring that the administration does everything possible to address and fix the state department’s concerns. Of course, for this to happen, the board would have to be engaged and willing to take its oversight responsibility seriously. So far, we haven’t done that.
The Board’s “Cavalier Disregard of FOIA”
Unfortunately, the board’s failure to take its oversight responsibility seriously is mirrored by its refusal to take its obligations under FOIA seriously.
Just a month after settling a FOIA lawsuit, the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last week that the board violated FOIA when addressing a parent’s complaint. (Click here for the full opinion.) Mistakes happen, and no board is going to be perfect. The problem I have is that we never admit to mistakes. Indeed, the Court of Appeals characterized the board as having a “cavalier disregard of FOIA” that “reflects a clear abuse of power.” That’s on us. We have no one to blame but ourselves for this.
The good news is that we could easily fix this by admitting mistakes, acknowledging our failures, and erring on the side of transparency.
Performance Standards Work Session
I am not going to summarize all of it here. I thought we had a good discussion about the goals for our students over the next year or so.
There was a discussion about the career or college ready statistic. We learned that in 2022 only 55% of our graduating seniors were either college or career ready. This number is similar to pre-pandemic results. In other words, almost half of our graduating seniors are neither college nor career ready. This number is well below the state average.
And this isn’t just a number. I taught or worked with students who graduated but were not career or college ready. And I still work with some of these former students. It is heart wrenching to watch how difficult life is for them. Recently, a former student reached out. This student got to middle school despite being years behind in reading. They never caught up but still graduated. They are so frustrated at how hard it is to get a job, keep a job, and afford to keep their lights on. In a recent message, they said, “I hate this life style.”
I am happy to see the district set a goal that raises our readiness number to 90% by the end of 2024, and I look forward to seeing our progress this year.