Just How Much is “Reinventing Education” Costing and Who is Even Asking? Where are the Checks and Balances? Is this Really in the Best Interest of the Students of Douglas County?
by Julie Keim, parent
Parents and community members have been reminding the BoE of their fiduciary responsibility in the last couple years and more intensely in recent months. They are asking who is monitoring and approving many of the endless hardware, software and systems development projects. In response, the BoE has promised to have presentations of the project costs and budgets for a few systems, evaluation and assessment initiatives. It seems highly unusual that the citizens have to ask about current and projected costs of high priced education reform initiatives, when the BoE should be asking the questions as part of their oversight responsibility.
Even more concerning is that the BoE refuses to address or acknowledge millions of dollars in discrepancies between what cabinet members present to the board and the actual costs reported in district accounting reports provided through CORA or the transparency website. Some of the most important responsibilities of a Board are to assess all of the needs of an organization, understand priorities, ensure proven strategies support the strategic direction, and understand the impact that taking funds from one area has on the broader mission of the organization. Yet in DCSD, our BoE asks no significant questions about true cost, benefit and ability to implement, nor do they ever discuss the tradeoffs required to divert millions of dollars from the direct education of our students to a variety of projects to track, assess and monitor students and teachers. The district leadership claims that these systems are necessary to meet the requirements of recent legislation. This legislation in no way requires huge, costly data tracking systems. No other districts are doing this. DCSD is using this as an excuse to mislead taxpayers about the true nature and intent of these projects.
At the same time we are spending tens of millions of dollars creating data systems, we have schools that are desperate for funding, resulting in school staffing and scheduling cuts that limit opportunity and reasonable class sizes for our students. The funds to schools have been dramatically cut at the same time DCSD is spending unprecedented levels of funding on unnecessary projects. Was it responsible to undertake these projects at a time when funding for education was spiraling down? Is it smart business practice to approve large data-gathering and communications systems without understanding the actual cost to date or the required costs for the future (both development and on-going licensing and maintenance requirements) of these very costly and unproven systems?
The presentation to the board at the May 6, 2014 meeting indicated $2.8M has been spent on InspirEd thus far, while CORA requests and the District transparency site indicate as much as $6M to more than $12M has been spent on this project to date. Rather than considering the implications of such a large discrepancy, some board members tried to disparage and discredit the source of the information, while others sat silently watching the “show”. Only one board member asked the superintendent to look at these cost differences and provide explanation for the discrepancies in writing. Nine days later and absolutely no communication. Further, there was no discussion or question from the board or district leadership about future costs of this particular project even though the presentation showed many more upgrades through at least 2015.
Where are the checks and balances in an administration that has been clear that following the rules and laws, understanding the priorities of their stakeholders, and understanding the implications of their actions are just not important to their ideology? In fact, a few of the board members publicly admitted during this meeting that no amount of evidence to the contrary will change their corporate education reform ideology, which they plan to pursue regardless of the consequences to our students and community.
The following spreadsheets were presented to the BoE at the May 6 meeting. The first shows discrepancies in accounting information between what is being reported by District leadership and what is actually being spent, as obtained from the district’s own documents and the transparency website. The second spreadsheet demonstrates some of the DCSD technology expenses made in the last 2 fiscal years (this year does not end until June 30, 2014). Rather than considering the use of more than $27M for only the largest technology vendors in the last two years, one board member specifically diverted attention by trying to mislead the public about what the spreadsheet was intending to convey.
At this point, one would have to consider whether board governance is actually occurring, whether the district leadership is hiding information from the BoE, or whether good business practices and decisions that support our students have been cast aside for self-promoting, theoretical “Reinvention of American Education”. Keep looking and asking the questions about how decisions are benefiting our students who will never get these educational years back.
Ms. Keim has extensive experience in the financial management of public entities. Ms. Keim has used her governmental auditing background to assist several governmental entities to improve their programmatic and financial operations in compliance with federal, state and local regulations. Prior to consulting, Ms. Keim served as the Finance Director for a multi-billion dollar umbrella human services agency. In this position, she devised a strategy to resolve a decade long dispute with the federal government that could have cost the agency close to $100 million in federal sanctions. It was during her tenure that this agency received its first “clean” audit opinion. Most recently, Ms. Keim has used her financial background to assist local organizations to create funding and new opportunities to enhance the education of students.