The St. Louis County School Board has been trying for months to get an accounting from the district’s business manager of exactly why the projected savings from the school district’s $78.8 …
The St. Louis County School Board has been trying for months to get an accounting from the district’s business manager of exactly why the projected savings from the school district’s $78.8 million facilities plan have fallen so woefully short.
Yet, to date, the board has received nothing more than lip service and spin from a business manager who has developed a serious credibility problem.
Two weeks ago, the board asked for a budget comparison, to see how much of the $4.4 million in projected staff reductions and $5.6 million in overall projected savings have actually been achieved due to implementation of the facilities plan. That plan called for reducing the district’s seven K-12 schools into four K-12 schools and a single elementary— and it was put into effect with the current school year.
Originally, the business manager had promised such an accounting by September. Now, in late October, the board was put off yet again.
It’s been the same story for far too long. Back in March, at a board retreat, board members said they wanted to see financial updates at least quarterly. Since then, they’ve received nothing, other than the barest of budget summaries for the 2011-12 school year. And if it weren’t for the fact that the board had to actually approve the budget, it’s doubtful they would have been given even that.
The lack of information is troubling, and we’re not the first to point it out. During his interview this past spring, superintendent candidate Greg East questioned why the board was operating on such outdated financial data. And during a meeting last winter, consultant Tom Watson told Superintendent Rick and two board members that he’d never had so much trouble getting financial information from a school district.
The situation raises red flags that the board would be reckless to overlook. The lack of regular reports suggests that either the district’s financial accounting isn’t getting done in a timely manner, or that someone doesn’t want the board scrutinizing the numbers too closely. Neither alternative bodes well.
The few glimpses we have seen of the business manager’s work point to an agenda-driven approach to accounting, rather than the straight facts that the board really needs.
When asked last winter about the savings the district might achieve from the closure of the Tower-Soudan High School, the business manager handed the board an outdated document that claimed $2.1 million in savings. We now know that the closure of the high school has saved the district nothing. In fact, once additional transportation costs and student losses to open enrollment are added in, it’s clear the high school closure was a financial loss to the district. And a competent and unbiased business manager would have told the board as much.
Instead of honest assessments, the board gets politics and spin from the business manager, some of it bordering on the bizarre. This past week, when board members asked why savings from the facilities plan fell so short, the business manager repeated her ridiculous claim that staff reductions made nearly two and a half years ago should be counted as savings from the facilities changes implemented just last month. Yet even if you accepted her leap of illogic, the staff reductions approved by the board in June 2009 only added up to a little over a million dollars, which still puts overall savings far, far short of projections.
Of course, of anyone in the district, it was the business manager who should have understood just how flawed those projections actually were. Instead of raising appropriate questions, she said nothing as those projections were provided to the board, to the Department of Education, and to the voters.
The school board has an obligation to demand better. If the board can’t get credible information in a timely manner from this business manager, they should find another one.