Sausage or Haggis?
It’s been over a week since I originally wrote this and given everything that has occurred since, it seemed inconsequential and I didn’t want to bother posting here. But then I think back to the original impetus behind this particular piece and I realize how the current scandal (the principal’s mysterious dismissal at WillowBrook 3 weeks before the end of the school year) might actually tie back to it. Have her actions contributed to the doubling of the school system’s liability insurance?
It’s budget time in Oak Ridge again and you can count on at least three things. First, there’s not enough money. Second, the city and the Board of Education (BOE) will blame the shortfall on one another. Third, you the taxpayer will be caught in the middle.
We certainly aren’t off to the greatest of starts. Nearly a year since they stopped submitting their portion of the high school debt payment to the city, the BOE has formally shifted $10 million of their financial obligation onto the taxpayers’ backs when they passed the resolution rejected by city council. However, as Leonard Abbatiello has pointed out in his recent column, the blame for the high school debt quandary is not limited to the school administration.
Mr. Abbatiello’s recent discoveries raise more questions and cast doubts on both sides of the aisle. According to the city finance director’s records, the city and the education foundation are sitting on a $16 million pot of our money. That’s 25% of the current balance. I don’t know about you, but if I were sitting on 25% of my mortgage and could use it for nothing else, I’d be tickled to pay it down early.
There was a glimmer of hope when the city manager announced that he would present to council the first zero increase budget since the economy tanked over five years ago. That hope was quickly shot down when the superintendent, Tom Bailey, claimed a $1 million deficit for the schools’ 2013 budget.
Now, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that every year for the last decade, Mr. Bailey has claimed a deficit. I hope that parents, teachers and others will remember the following when he inevitably puts teachers and aides back on the chopping block: According to the school’s 2010 and 2011 audits, at year-end they were left with $3,593,522 and $5,503,321, respectively, to spend at their discretion. Again, you the taxpayer are confronted with conflicting information. How can there always be a shortfall when so much money is left unspent each year?
By now, you’ve picked up on the fact that there are undeniable, verifiable inconsistencies in what the public is told, what is happening behind closed doors, what is documented locally and what is reported to the state. You need only look at the issue of capital projects funding, which is meant to cover expenses like major building repairs, to understand this.
Publicly, we are told that the city provides the schools $500,000-$700,000 per year specifically for capital needs. But, according to school, city and state records these funds are not being spent on the needs for which they have been designated (see here for source info).
School audit data shows that, over the course of the last decade, they’ve only spent about one-fourth of what the city provides them for capital needs. The amounts that they have reported to the state indicate that they’ve spent closer to half of what the city provides. Which source do you trust? The audit? The state? The city? Where are the unspent funds? Since the city controls those purse strings, should we assume this to be another “pot” of money on which they sit?
Complicating matters further, the projects that the schools are pursuing differ from those that they tell us are greater priorities. For example, in his 2013 budget, Mr. Bailey has included another $400,000 to complete a head-in room project that he started last year using $300,000 of the capital funds from the 2012 budget.
Once again, the schools are prioritizing wants over needs. Instead of using those capital funds for major priorities found in the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), such as the elementary and preschool buildings that are falling apart, the administration has chosen to spend a tremendous amount of those funds on something that has never even been mentioned as a “placeholder” item within the CIP. A head-in room, for those who may be wondering, is essentially an air conditioned closet used to house computer servers and other electronic equipment. At $700,000, it could probably double as a walk-in freezer for at least one of the school cafeterias.
There are few things that all Oak Ridgers will agree upon. I believe, though, that transparency and fiscal responsibility are important to all taxpayers. Handshake agreements, closed door meetings and inconsistent reporting of data do not make for a transparent or fiscally sound government. The truth, as ugly as it may be at times, matters. Trust must be restored if we are going to move forward. However, we do not appear even close to achieving complete disclosure when you consider one other red flag. The school’s tort liability insurance will double in 2013. The most common use of such insurance is to defend against claims of negligence.
The tightest of seals in any government is wrapped around past and present litigation. How much of our money is being spent to cover up the poor choices and/or incompetence of our school and city administrators? If you really want to find out how much your beloved leaders truly value transparency, ask them to break the seal. Ask your council members and BOE members to fully disclose what the courts have said about their business conduct.
Our mayor has compared the job of public service to that of making sausage. Do the courts agree? Or would they liken it more to the process of making haggis?