Issue May 27, 2014

One shining audit

Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen last week gave taxpayers a gargantuan gift in his yearlong audit of Jefferson County Public Schools: a comprehensive roadmap for reform and modernization of an antiquated, inefficient, bloated bureaucracy “that benefits itself and keeps the board in the dark.”

In an interview with Devin Katayama, WFPL’s education reporter, he gave us something extra: context and perspective that underscores the urgency of his 260-page report, which contains 45 findings and 200 recommendations. “The status quo is indefensible. We have got to have a more aggressive and vigilant level of oversight for what is the second-largest government in Kentucky and the one with 100,000 students, 62,000 of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch (and) 10,000 that are homeless at some point during the school year,” he said. “So we’ve got to make sure that what scarce resources we do have are getting to the classrooms to drive excellence.”

The audit compared JCPS with five “high-performing districts around the country that have similar budgets, enrollments and demography,” Edelen said. Among the six staffs, JCPS showed the lowest percentage of teachers and the highest percentage of administrators. Among the 369 JCPS administrators paid more than $100,000 per year, 150 are in the central office, compared to 53 in Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.), 33 in Cobb County (Ga.) and 39 in Austin (Texas). These excesses are hardly news. Three years ago, shortly before Superintendent Donna Hargens was named to succeed Sheldon Berman, LEO saluted WLKY-TV for exposing lavish salaries (332 in excess of $100K) and overtime totaling $22 million in one year.

Edelen praised Hargens for beginning to address the super-sized salary issue, which was highlighted in a previous audit. “Her challenge going forward, and I know it’s one she takes very seriously, is driving that streamlining effort system-wide,” he said.

Katayama asked how difficult it would be to change the entrenched administrative culture and structure, noting, “I know folks who have been there for years and years — and Dr. Hargens values the work they do.”

“Particularly in a climate in which needs are increasing and resources are diminishing,” the system must benefit taxpayers and students, Edelen replied. In the best-case scenario, “I believe the net result will be that tens of millions of dollars over the long term will be freed from the bureaucracy and sent to the classroom.”

Edelen, in an interview with cn/2’s Ryan Alessi, said problems he found in previous audits of 15 school districts statewide — including lack of effective financial oversight — are magnified at JCPS due to its enormity and whopping $1.2 billion annual budget. He also lamented “that there’s no centralized plan for instituting technology in any comprehensive way; it’s a hodgepodge.”

“Does that come from the state board of education, the general assembly or the governor?” Alessi asked.

“All of the above — because we have to understand that … technology is no longer a novelty; it’s a necessity,” Edelen replied. “I don’t say it to be provocative, but a debate about textbooks is yesterday’s argument. We need to be talking about digital readers, because that’s not the future; it’s the present.”

In an interview at WHAS-11, anchor Rachel Platt asked Edelen to give JCPS a letter grade based on his findings. “I would give an A for the board and Dr. Hargens for having the courage to ask for this kind of review, because we know of no other district in America that has invited this level of scrutiny. But clearly, we’ve got a whole lot of work to do toward making JCPS the best-run school district in America.”

The next morning, Platt followed up, asking Edelen to respond to a couple of critics who’ve said “this is political” in advance of his run for governor. “Public education is the most important moral obligation of government, and it’s also the largest investment the taxpayers make,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate that rather than debating the merits of the investigation, we’re attacking the messenger.”

Two board members evidently felt stung by his finding that “board members do not appear to have a depth of understanding to actively examine or question the budget effectively without significant reliance on JCPS staff.”

Board member Linda Duncan issued this incredible rebuttal to WDRB-TV: “We don’t have to have the expertise required to actually analyze what’s going on,” she said. “We just need to make sure it makes sense … and to me, I see that.”