‘Accountable’ Public Schools Squander Funds

Published March 1, 2000

When an Ohio state audit recently revealed that a voucher school in Cleveland had bilked the state out of more than $85,000, state legislators proposed passing a law to prevent any reoccurrence of such incidents.

But recent horror stories of fraud, waste, and mismanagement in public schools raise the possibility that rules and regulations are not the most effective mechanism for ensuring accountability for results achieved or tax dollars spent. As an alternative, voucher advocates contend that making schools subject to consumer choice would produce real accountability.

Quick Response to Alleged Private School Fraud

A state audit recently accused officials at Cleveland Islamic school of collecting more than $85,000 in voucher funds from the state by reporting enrollments double the school’s actual enrollment.

In response, the Ohio Senate on January 11 mustered almost unanimous approval for a bill imposing more regulations on voucher schools, requiring them to follow the same rules as other non-public schools. Republican Senator Lynn Wachtmann, the lone dissenter in the 32-1 vote, said the bill unfairly targeted alternative schools and wished lawmakers would respond as quickly to poor children in public schools.

Wachtmann’s view was echoed by David Zanotti, chairman of the School Choice Committee, who noted, “the accountability of the Ohio School Choice Plan far exceeds, in speed and impact, any similar review process in the public school systems across the state.” Problems identified in two audits already had been resolved, he said, adding “the Islamic school has not just been exposed–it is closed.”

On January 13, in Texas, the Rameses Charter School of San Antonio suffered the same fate as the voucher school in Cleveland–put out of business when the State Board of Education (SBOE) voted to revoke its charter. Since passage of Texas’ charter law in 1995, more than 150 charter schools have been formed, and eight have subsequently closed.

Critics point to the closings as proof legislators need to impose more rules and regulations on charter schools to prevent their failure. J.C . Bowman, director of education research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, disagrees.

“This is proof that educational choice is succeeding,” he said. “Had these schools been traditional public schools, they would have never been shut down.”

The closings demonstrate that accountability for charter schools is swift and decisive, Bowman explained. If parents are dissatisfied with a charter school, they remove their children. If the SBOE is dissatisfied, it revokes the charter.

According to Allan Parker, a member of the official SBOE Charter School Evaluation Team, there’s a double standard in the way that charter schools and traditional public schools are treated. Although quick action is demanded for problems encountered by choice schools, a much more lenient and leisurely approach is taken towards public schools–even in the face of strong evidence of substantial fraud, waste, and mismanagement by school officials.

“Bad public schools should be shut down, but it is too politically difficult to shut down traditional government schools even if they are charged with criminal wrongdoing,” maintained Parker. He pointed to recent cases involving the inflation of test scores by the Austin Independent School District and criminal misappropriation of school funds by the Dallas Independent School District.

“Austin ISD and Dallas ISD would be shut down for criminal conduct of employees if the same standards applied to them as to charter schools,” Parker said.

The issue raised by Parker may be applied beyond Texas to several incidents in other school districts across the country. What would the response have been if the same conduct had occurred in a charter or voucher school?

Los Angeles: Toxic School Sites

On January 25, 2000, a divided Los Angeles Board of Education voted 5-2 to abandon further work on building a $200 million high school–the nation’s most expensive–on an environmentally contaminated site in the Belmont area west of city’s downtown. Overcrowding there is so severe that many parents and students wanted the Board to go ahead with the 5,000-student project, even though they had concerns about environmental contamination. Interim schools Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines pleaded with the board to delay its decision.

Construction of the school, being built on a former oil field, was halted last year after it was revealed that the site’s environmental hazards had not been fully addressed before ground was broken in 1997. High levels of explosive methane gas were detected at the site, as were the carcinogen benzene and poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas.

School officials had information about the risks involved with developing the site but did not share that information with the school board. An official with the state Division of Oil and Gas recommended against building on the site as early as 1989.

A 15-volume investigative report issued last September called the district “rudderless,” charged former school boards with violating state law, and recommended punishment or firing for several school district officials. Superintendent Ruben Zacarias subsequently was replaced by Cortines.

The board has spent $25 million to purchase another environmentally contaminated site at South Gate. There, district staff continued to press ahead with condemnation of additional parcels even after being warned last October about open-ended environmental problems.

Florida/Rhode Island: Schools on Garbage Dumps

A tenants’ group in Providence, Rhode Island, has filed a suit against local officials there, alleging that children’s civil rights were violated by exposing them to environmental hazards in a new elementary school built atop a former city garbage dump.

Providence official Alan Sepe told The Christian Science Monitor that all appropriate steps had been taken to ensure safety and inform the community.

But the tenants’ group leader, Deborah Wray, remains worried. “What I want to know is, who is going to be accountable?” she said.

A similar situation has existed in Jacksonville, Florida, for some 30 years, with schools and homes built on top of a dump filled with the ash from incinerated trash. Nellie Tulson is trying to get the city to relocate everything. She calls it “environmental racism,” since the students at the school are predominantly African-American, as are those at the Providence school.

In 1955, the Niagara Falls School Board opened a new school on land that had been sold to the Board for $1.00 by Hooker Chemical under threat of condemnation. Although Hooker wanted the transfer deed to include a provision mandating that the land be used only as a park, the Board refused to accept that restriction. Hooker settled for a provision in the deed that informed all future owners of the land–later known as Love Canal–that it had been “filled, in whole or in part, to the present grade level thereof with waste products resulting from the manufacture of chemicals.” Nevertheless, the Niagara Falls School Board approved construction of the school and sold the land to a homebuilder for development.

Belleville, Illinois: Boondoggle

The Belleville Township High School District won voter approval last year for a $64 million, partially state-funded tax initiative to build a new high school. The project is already $6 million over budget.

It has also generated the first lawsuit in Illinois history filed by a private taxpaying citizen to stop a public school construction project.

The suit alleges that the land the district is buying for the new school is priced substantially above market value; the county has no plans nor budget to provide access roads or water, sewer, electrical, and phone service until years after the school is scheduled to open; construction contracts were let without bid, bond, or cost caps; and the general contractor paid a fixed percentage rate of the construction costs.

“Boards are allowed to make bad decisions,” said Bruce Cook, legal counsel for the suit. “But thankfully the state allows people and taxpayers to say this is a stupid site and we are going to take you to court to try and stop this waste of our tax money.”

New York City: Empty Desks, 100% Attendance

While Chicago has developed a reputation for having civic-minded citizens whose commitment to voting is so strong that some cast ballots even after they have died, New York City appears to be developing a similar reputation for having students whose commitment to learning is so strong they show up for class even after moving out of the district or passing on.

Some of these students even get report cards, according to a December report issued by a state commission investigating possible attendance fraud in the city’s public schools.

The report found dead children listed among those reporting to class each day, part of what Governor George E. Pataki called “a conscious pattern of abuse and fraud” to boost school attendance figures and secure state funding. Pataki said the alleged fraud had cost the state “hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years.”

In 1998, New York Post columnist Bob McManus described how the “wholly unreliable” enrollment figures for New York City’s schools generate a half-billion dollars in “cooked school books.”

Although schools Chancellor Rudy Crew dismissed the report as a “political hack job,” its publication did little to help his contract renewal negotiations with the city’s Board of Education. A little more than a week after the report was issued, the Board had voted not to renew Crew’s contract.

New York City: Unsafe in School

The year-end report on inflated school enrollment figures in New York City capped six months of bad news about the city’s public schools.

The inflated attendance report came just a week after Special Schools Investigator Edward Stancik cited 52 teachers, principals, and other teaching staff in 32 New York City schools for “widespread” tampering with tests to boost student test scores. And that report came a month after a New York Post exposé revealed that one in three city school cafeterias was crawling with vermin during the past year, exposing students to diseases carried by mice, roaches, and flies.

“If you were a restaurant, you could be closed down for that–but people still have to send their kids to school,” Jill Chaifetz told the newspaper. Chaifetz is executive director of Advocates for Children, which recently completed its own survey of school cleanliness.

In early November, the New York Post also ran a series of stories about student-on-student sex attacks in city schools. According to parents of victims and lawyers, victims get little support form schools and assailants get virtually no punishment. A 10-year-old who raped a 5-year-old kindergartner was suspended from school for just one week. A former school safety chief advised students not to walk alone in the hallways or go to the bathroom alone.

But it’s unsafe just to be around some of the city’s schools because of school construction work done by careless and inept contractors who are inadequately supervised by the district. A New York Times report last July detailed how students are put at risk by bad contractors who not only get “second chances” but in some cases sixth and seventh chances.

In 1997, a student was killed by falling bricks because of contractor ineptitude, and in March 1998 a construction worker was killed and two students injured when a brick wall collapsed. The Bronx’s infamous “sinking school,” P.S. 20, is a stark example of the poor value received for $9 billion of city school construction expenditures during the last decade.

Detroit: Construction Stalled

An audit of the Detroit Public Schools revealed last December that the business practices used in the district are far below accepted standards for cost, quality, and inventory control.

According to the auditors, one of the district’s major problems is the lack of an overall plan to define business practices and controls. This is the kind of plan that interim schools CEO David Adamany currently is developing.

The audit did not examine the district’s $1.5 billion bond issue for school improvements, but The Detroit News did, in a seven-month investigation last year.

On October 3, 1999, the newspaper launched a series of stories on the investigation with the following summary: “Incompetence, mismanagement, and cronyism by Detroit school officials, employees, and contractors, and a system with inadequate safeguards, have devastated a $1.5 billion school construction project.”

Although voters approved a $1.5 billion bond issue in 1994 to repair 263 public schools and build more than a dozen new ones, little work has been done to date, and only $134 million has been spent.

Repairs didn’t get done because the district didn’t have a master plan to spend the money. As a result, children still are being taught in old buildings with peeling paint, broken windows, leaky roofs, and failing plumbing and electrical systems.

District officials wasted more than a million dollars designing or building additions that weren’t needed. Another $343,000 went for a computer system that was never used, and $518,051 was paid for land that was appraised at $85,000.

Philadelphia: Paying for No-Shows

Even though 24,054 students played hooky from Philadelphia’s public schools for more than 10 consecutive days from 1993-94 to 1995-96, the city’s school district received millions of dollars in extra state funds by claiming the students were in class being educated, according to the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office.

By also claiming reimbursement for 14,605 days of attendance for students who were listed on the rolls but never attended the city’s schools, the district secured a grand total of $20.4 million extra from the state for the two-year audit period.

“The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for students who aren’t there,” said Pennsylvania Education Department spokesperson Dan Langan, noting the state plans to recoup the funds from the district.

While the district’s executive director, William Epstein, admitted to The Philadelphia Inquirer that there may have been some technical errors, he questioned whether it was right to “penalize today’s students for something that is seven years old.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.