If you’re a school board member looking to protect taxpayer dollars, you can learn a few lessons from the Dallas Morning News about school district spending.
Speaking at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago last month, reporter Kent Fischer shared some eye-opening tips about how his newspaper uncovered millions of dollars of questionable spending within the Dallas Independent School District (DISD)—just by looking at records available to the public.
Imagine what you could do with the records available to you as a board member.
You could start by examining what’s being purchased with district credit cards. After looking at more than 150,000 credit card transactions over two years, Fischer and his colleagues uncovered millions of dollars in purchases that the newspaper claimed “violated state procurement laws or district policy.”
All of these purchases had been buried and lost in vast amounts of paperwork. But, citing Texas’ open records law, the newspaper requested electronic records on purchase orders, written checks, credit card bills, payrolls, and other financial data, including budget program codes and purchase order numbers.
By cross-referencing data, Fischer said lots of interesting transactions popped up, including purchases of blanket and pillow sets, Star Trek DVDs, iPods, and a subscription to an online dating service. One former district employee already has been sent to prison.
Another fertile area for scrutiny is employee stipends, Fischer said. The newspaper discovered that the school district had, as one article last fall reported, “doled out millions of dollars a year in stipends and extra pay not included in the district’s compensation manual.”
“Look beyond the average teacher’s salary’ and look at stipend and supplemental pay,” he said. “Get overtime itemized.”
One story cited a high school band director who “collected nearly $40,000 between 2003 and 2006 for long hours on band trips that should not have qualified for extra pay.” Meanwhile, school police ran up $2.5 million in overtime for three years straight—yet kept budgeting only $250,000 for overtime.
Questions also might arise about employee travel stipends, he said. Thousands of employees were receiving such stipends, including those whose job descriptions didn’t demand travel. One secretary received a $1,200-a-year car allowance, and she didn’t have a driver’s license.
Fischer said it also pays to look closer at contract language. One multimillion-dollar computer contract was written so strictly—demanding a specific internal processor, for example—that only one product could meet the bid specifications. In another contract, school administrators arranged free entry into a major golf tournament.
When exposed on the front page of the local newspaper, such discoveries are a public relations nightmare for a school board. Indeed, DISD leaders spent much of last year modifying their financial processes in response to headline after headline of bad news.
But why leave it to your local paper? You represent your community. Why not look for such improprieties yourself? Through their example, the Dallas Mornings News and Kent Fischer perhaps have done you a favor.
Just follow this last admonishment that Fischer shared with his fellow journalists: “Follow the money—what is spent, not [just] what’s budgeted.”
Del Stover, Senior Editor