"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tearing at the Inadequate Spending Pie in NJ

From Our Children/Our Schools:
A campaign to support high quality education for all New Jersey children
OC/OS Calls for Accountability, Not Posturing, on School Spending

The Our Children, Our Schools campaign supports strong, transparent fiscal accountability for school spending for all districts. OC/OS opposes political posturing about "waste" when it is only used to justify reductions in needed spending for school children. Recent reporting by the Star Ledger and recent statements by some New Jersey legislators appear to fall into this category.

The headline on the Star Ledger’s May 11 front page story, "Audits Find Waste in Abbott Spending: 29% of expenditures found not ‘reasonable’," is not supported by the facts in the story itself or by the recently released audits of Abbott districts (and, significantly, only Abbott districts).

According to the Star Ledger report, auditors hired by the NJ Department of Education examined purchase orders for $290 million out of the total $4 billion that Abbott districts spend. That means they looked closely at about 7% of all Abbott spending. The auditors labeled $83 million of the spending that was reviewed "discretionary" or "inconclusive." It was the Star Ledger, not the auditors, that labeled this spending "waste," "unnecessary" or "not reasonable." It was also the Star Ledger, not the auditors, who projected from this limited review of spending in the Abbott districts that 29% of all spending in those districts was "unnecessary, excessive or lacking documentation."

OC/OS supports full and open examination of all public spending, including the items flagged by the DOE’s auditors. But it is outrageous to declare 29% of spending in the state’s neediest school districts "unnecessary" without public examination of the standards being applied and how they are being applied. Money that is misspent or misused needs to be redirected to student needs, not labeled as "waste" and taken away. Sensationalizing or misrepresenting the problem of "waste" encourages political attacks and harmful budget cuts on our most vulnerable schools and students. It does nothing to improve oversight of school spending.

Many of the items questioned by the audits appear to be legitimate expenses. For example, the Trenton audit cited missing documentation for a $1.2 million payment to a Puerto Rican Community Day Care center. The center houses part of the district’s pre-school program. While inadequate documentation is a problem that needs correction, it does not make the expenditure "wasteful" or "unnecessary." Similarly, the Trenton audit challenged a $25,803 payment for dues to the New Jersey School Boards Association. State law requires districts to belong to the association.

Other items were categorized as "inconclusive" or "discretionary" because the auditors decided the price paid was too high, or the items were deemed not an educational necessity. Examples include:

$106 for a floral arrangement for a Trenton high school graduation ceremony
$596 for a software packaged titled "Final Cut" for Burlington’s Audio Visual Department
$504 to rent an ice skating rink for an outing for 144 Plainfield students
$1,383 for a field trip to send 13 Bridgeton students to compete in a national Double Dutch Competition
Bridgeton Superintendent Victor Gilson spoke for many in Abbott districts when he challenged the claim that field trips and modest items like T-shirts for school clubs and flowers for graduation were examples of "waste."

"Tell the parents of the double-dutch kids that it's a waste," Gilson told The Atlantic City Press. "We have a major gang issue in Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland. And luckily, we don't have it in the schools. And we don't have it in the schools because we have students engaged in meaningful, active activities. I'd rather kids be in double-dutch than out in gangs in the evening."

Gilson also noted that auditors labeled some items "inconclusive" because they lacked paperwork that wasn't required when the purchases were made. "They went back over two years and held the district accountable for abiding by rules that weren't in place at the time the transaction occurred," Gilson told The Atlantic City Press. "Since that time, the district has followed the rules, but you can't expect someone to follow a bookkeeping rule that wasn't in place."

The misrepresentation of district spending practices reinforces the impression that the audits are being used for political purposes to support elimination of the Abbott remedies, which are once again before the NJ Supreme Court. OC/OS especially thought the timing, front-page position and misleading headlines on the Star Ledger report seemed calculated to do maximum political damage to Abbott districts, coming, as it did, one week after the Education Law Center filed a response to the State’s request that the Court eliminate all Abbott mandates.

The misleading report provided ammunition for Abbott opponents in the NJ legislature. Republican Assemblyman David Rible, R-Monmouth, issued a press release declaring, "While it has never been demonstrated that the spending in these districts actually results in a better education for students, it has clearly been demonstrated that it results in poor spending decisions and rampant waste and abuse of tax dollars."

Such claims are demonstrably false. After many years of Court battles and decades of separate and unequal school funding, the Abbott rulings brought funding equity to over 300,000 poor urban school children for only the past ten years. During that time, more than 40,000, 3- and 4-year olds have been enrolled in high quality pre-K programs, test score gaps between urban and suburban 4th graders have been significantly reduced, and New Jersey has maintained one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, including some of the highest rates for African American and Hispanic students, despite persistent gaps among groups and communities. Much remains to be done, but these are significant accomplishments that would be seriously undermined by elimination of the Abbott mandates.

One reason OC/OS opposed the new School Funding and Reform Act is precisely because the SFRA reduces accountability for the use of state school aid. It fails to ensure that such aid is directed to proven programs or to support special needs students.

The fundamental problem in our state’s school funding system is that ALL NJ schools receive too little support from state and federal sources. That’s why NJ’s local property taxes are too high, and why urban and suburban school districts are pitted against each other in competition for an inadequate pool of funds.

The new School Funding and Reform Act reinforces these problems instead of solving them. SFRA’s funding formulas are tied to state budget pressures, not to the needs of schoolchildren. It makes schools less accountable for the funds they receive, and removes requirements that aid be used for specific programs and to support students with special needs.

OC/OS calls for improved oversight and public examination of all school spending and for better evaluation of school programs by both the DOE and districts to make sure the educational needs of all New Jersey’s children are being met.

For more information, please contact Sharon Krengel at (973) 624-1815, x 24.

Prepared: May 15, 2008

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