First, the job of a school board member is that of a “public servant.” A board member is a steward of public funds for the benefit of children, who absolutely depend upon the school system for his or her future well being (that is, the ability to earn a living in the future). But some on the DeKalb Board see their election as life-long employment. They network with system employees to find work for family members and push for high pay. Educating children does not appear to be their top priority.
Secondly, the taxpayer is forced to pay the taxes to the county through property taxes, to the state through state income taxes and to the federal government through federal taxes. These taxes create the pool to fund DeKalb County School System’s billion-plus-dollar budget. Unlike the ill-fated investors of Bernie Madoff, who understood, at least at some level, there was risk when they chose to invest, the taxpayer has no choice. The taxpayer must pay or risk 1) criminal prosecution for tax evasion and/or 2) foreclosure of his/her property. The taxpayer, in turn, has a reasonable expectation that elected stewards will use these monies for the purposes for which they are legally tasked. In the case of DCSS, those funds are obligated for use to educate children.
It is obvious to those of us “on the outside” that there have not been appropriate “checks and balances” in place on the use of our taxpayer money within DCSS. To wit:
- Former principals oversee the Transportation Department – not leaders from UPS or Federal Express who understand efficient delivery of goods (students) from point A to point B;
- A former principal has headed a Health and Wellness program, selected over a candidate with a PhD in this very field. (An aside: the program wasn’t needed in the first place.)
Further evidence is the “Friends and Family” plan in DCSS. It is clear to us “on the outside” that in its recent downsizing, DCSS retained employees who are related to current and former Board of Education members and higher echelon members of the administration, rather than those employees critical to educating children in the schoolhouse. One wonders if this is the standard SACS requires the school system to follow.
It is past time the DeKalb Board of Education initiate work to begin to restore the trust and confidence of the community it serves. It clearly failed to monitor, supervise and question issues related to the massive construction program, which makes members essentially complicit in the activity that triggered the indictments against the former superintendent and his deputy. Several years ago, former board member Cassandra Anderson-Littlejohn attempted to question this very activity. Her fellow board members refused to support her demand for greater transparency. Now, the community must compel the board to implement changes immediately:
- Post all financial transactions (P-card, checks, statements, etc.) online. It is the taxpayer’s money and the public is entitled to this information.
- Implement Dr. Johnny Brown’s compensation audit to reduce salaries for all top- level officials. Any position that was not needed during his tenure five years ago should not be needed now.
- Follow the example of the DeKalb Board of Commissioners and work with our local universities. Ask Emory’s Business School to take on DCSS as a case study to discern how to restore integrity in all areas of DeKalb Schools. Ask Georgia State to conduct another audit/compensation study.
- Implement an Ethics Policy that is unequivocal and clear. Clarity would end ongoing conflicts of interests and bickering over minor issues like dollar limits for dinners.
- Engage external auditors and publish their findings. There does not appear to be a functional internal auditing department that reports directly to the Board. For example: when the principal and bookkeeper departed from Lakeside High School in 2008, an audit was allegedly conducted. Parents and PTA members were aware that items were purchased for the school that never arrived at the building. The audit, which parents were told was “in the works,” was never released nor the discrepancies resolved. The same thing happened more recently at Chamblee High and apparently at Cross Keys High School as well. External auditors could determine if this is happening all over the district.
- Signatures – how many signatures are needed for which purchases and checks? Do purchases and checks over a certain amount (say $1000 or $1500) require two signatures?
While Bernie Madoff’s investors have a trustee to unravel his financial misdeeds, the taxpayers must rely on the Board of Education to elucidate what has happened in DeKalb Schools. There is no trustee or receiver to untangle the money trail, although many taxpayers are appealing to SACS to investigate these issues. But at present, it is up to the elected Board of Education to rise to the challenge. Its Members have a fiduciary obligation to the students and taxpayers of DeKalb County. It is past time that this duty be followed and observed.
Last month’s news has made the national headlines and may well be used in Board training rooms throughout the country as examples of irresponsibility and what not to do. The DeKalb Board can choose to handle this crisis by exercising integrity and taking bold steps, selecting a strong new, outside, Interim Superintendant who is unaffiliated with the current mess to start the restructuring that needs to occur. In this way, the Interim Superintendant can prepare DCSS for a permanent hire that can restore our broken system.
The time is now, Board Members. Our children deserve it and the taxpayers – and voters – demand it.
*Note: Shayna Steinfeld, former president of the Atlanta Bar Association, ran for the DeKalb School Board in 2008.