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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Who is Accountable For School Finances?

The New York Times reported yesterday that Tom Napoli, Comptroller of New York State, (pictured at right) is auditing all school districts. We have no information that New York City is one of them, looking at the New York City Oversight webpage. On page 27 we can see a general comment on the financial status of the Department of Education, but this is not what is called for at this time, when misinformation and possible corruption is rampant. Mike and Joel, have you handed out copies of the School Districts Accounting and Reporting Manual? Does anyone remember my article on The Gill Commission? Can we say that anything has changed? Charter Schools are fighting any audits of their books at all, by anyone, ever. Parent Associations are told by school staff to buy products they need from "approved" vendors that charge triple the amount other retail outlets might charge...and the NYC BOE keeps on hiring more people despite a hiring freeze.

No one is stopping the run to deplete scarce resources, it seems. It's business as usual, and no one is minding the store, at least not in New York City.

February 27, 2009
Auditors Peer Into Finances of New York Schools Statewide

State auditors found that the Niagara Falls, N.Y., school district overpaid 272 employees by more than $500,000 in 2006, apparently incorrectly sending out an extra paycheck to each of them.

Separately, they discovered that a laptop computer assigned to a school administrator in Vestal, west of Binghamton, had been used to visit Internet sites for pornography.

And they determined that districts in Mount Vernon, Newburgh, North Syracuse, Schenectady and Williamsville could have saved a total of $212,000 on electricity if they had shut off computers at night and used power-save settings.

Under a mandate to audit all 840 of New York’s school districts, charter schools and regional education agencies by March 2010, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has dispatched hundreds of number-crunchers who have churned out multipage reports — more than 550 so far — that provide a revealing look at the day-to-day operations and finances of the state’s public education system. The audits are the first such routine checks of school district finances in decades, and they were prompted by a scandal in which half a dozen people, including the former superintendent, were convicted of stealing as much as $11.2 million from the Roslyn district on Long Island.

“If it could happen in Roslyn, it certainly could happen in any district,” said Mr. DiNapoli, who sponsored the legislation while a state assemblyman from a district including Roslyn. “You really have to be sure that money is not being used in a wasteful way, because for many of the communities, school district spending is such a large part of the property tax burden, which is the most onerous tax for people to pay.”

Superintendents and school board members at several local districts said that the audits had tightened financial controls and had made employees at every level more careful about spending taxpayer money, but that they also took up a lot of time and resources. Some also complained that the audits could be too focused on relatively minor infractions and accusatory in tone.

“For the most part it was helpful, but in some areas we felt that they took gratuitous shots at the district in a way that was self-serving for the comptroller’s office,” said Alan B. Groveman, superintendent of the Connetquot district on Long Island. (Editor: here is Mr. Groveman's bio
Alan Groveman
LI Chapter Public Relations Chair
Superintendent of Schools
Company: Connetquot Central School District
Address: 780 Ocean Avenue Bohemia, NY 11716
Phone: 631-244-2215 x3508

Personal Bio or Company Description:

Dr. Alan B. Groveman has over 30 years of experience in the education field, most recently as the Superintendent of the Connetquot Central School District of Islip. He has served as an Assistant Superintendent for Business as well as for Personnel and for Curriculum and Instruction. He has a background in Psychology and Special Education, has taught at the graduate level and has consulted with schools and government agencies on a national basis. In addition to his educational career, Dr. Groveman has also served with Fire/Rescue departments including the Huntington Township Tactical rescue Team and worked closely with OEM, the police and other investigative agencies. He is a graduate of the City University of New York and received his Masters and Doctorate from Colombia University.)

The audit cited Connetquot’s multimillion-dollar surplus as evidence of lax budget oversight, but Dr. Groveman said the district had been purposely trying to build up reserves.

“Our explanations were ignored,” he said. “They said it was poor budget planning, and we said it was intentional. It would be dumb and inappropriate to spend every dollar we budgeted just because it’s budgeted.”

Complicating the audit process is a lawsuit by the state’s charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently operated, arguing that the state comptroller lacks the authority to investigate them. An appellate court ruled in favor of the state last month, but the charters are appealing the case. Mr. DiNapoli has suspended audits of charter schools until the case is resolved.

The state comptroller routinely audited school districts until the 1970s, when budget cuts led the office to limit them to a handful a year. The new law, passed in 2005, came with $5.4 million to hire 90 new auditors, and two years later, another $2.4 million for 45 more. In addition, nearly every district is required to submit an independent audit, using local funds, to both the comptroller and the state’s Education Department.

The state auditors started with districts where they had received complaints about financial problems, then selected others randomly. A typical audit lasts about 40 work days. William Reynolds, a spokesman for Mr. DiNapoli, said that “school officials are given ample opportunity to respond to these audits, and their responses are included in the audit reports for the public to see.”

In the Grand Island district, northwest of Buffalo, an auditor sat in a spare room near the business office from June until December last year, reading through attendance records, purchasing orders and payroll accounts. At the auditor’s suggestion, the district has started requiring school employees who travel for workshops or conferences to submit the agendas along with reimbursement requests.

“It’s not gross change; it’s fine-tuning, what we should be doing anyway,” said Robert W. Christmann, the superintendent(pictured at left).

Mr. Christmann said that he and other superintendents had paid attention as their neighbors were audited to make sure they did not make the same mistakes, and were generally being more careful with their finances and record-keeping. He said he had noticed more sign-in sheets at educational meetings across the state lately that people were “signing because at some point you may be asked to prove that you were there.”

Because of the sheer size of the New York City school system, the comptroller has been auditing those schools on an continuing basis. Recent reports have cited inaccurate records of textbook inventories and special education services and inconsistent use of green cleaning products required by law.

Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the audits have too narrow a focus because they look only at compliance rather than larger fiscal issues. For instance, he said, state law prohibits districts from putting more than 4 percent of their budget into a general reserve fund — a cap that school officials have said could hamper their ability to avert budget problems in the future.

“It would be helpful if state leaders like the comptroller would question some of these mandates and restrictions,” Mr. Lowry said. “If you do these audits and criticize districts for failing to comply with all these detailed requirements, it reinforces the presumption that they all make sense. In some cases, it would be missing the forest for the trees in terms of what would be most helpful to taxpayers.”

Mr. DiNapoli said the purpose of the audits was to evaluate compliance and not to debate policy, though his auditors also assess districts financial condition and suggest ways to save like turning off computers at night. In addition, the auditors will review criminal background checks of employees.

In Vestal, auditors found that district laptops had been used to play children’s games and casino games, and in one case, to visit pornography sites. Vestal officials said that the administrator responsible for the laptop had lent the laptop to a family member who then used it inappropriately off school property.

After auditors found that the Niagara Falls district had overpaid employees, they were asked to repay the money or give up days off. Cynthia Bianco, the interim superintendent, said the audit was helpful but used overly harsh language in presenting its findings.

“I think a lot of it was instructive, but the tone of it was almost accusatory,” said Mrs. Bianco, who added that many of the issues cited were corrected before the audit was released. “We agreed with much of what was said in the audit. It’s been years since there was this kind of oversight, and many laws have changed during that period.”

FAQ on New York State Education Law Amendments affecting Charter Schools

Charter schools group to appeal ruling on state audits
Cara Matthews, Albany bureau, Democrat and Chronicle, January 18, 2009

ALBANY — The New York Charter Schools Association plans to appeal this week a mid-level court decision that says the state comptroller has the authority to audit the publicly funded but privately run schools.

The association and more than a dozen of its members filed suit against Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli a year ago, contending that his office did not have the constitutional power to audit public entities that are charter schools, which are also nonprofit organizations.

The group is not objecting to others having oversight over charter schools. That's already in place with the state Education Department and the agency that authorizes the charter (either the state Board of Regents, the State University of New York, or the two city school districts that have opened up their own charters), said Peter Murphy of the Charter Schools Association.

The state Supreme Court agreed with the association's arguments, but the Appellate Division disagreed by a vote of 4-1. The next step will be the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

"We think both constitution and precedent place limits on the comptroller to audit recipients of public dollars," Murphy said. "If the ruling holds, every recipient of a public dollar at any level is now subject to the reach of the comptroller, and that is clearly not the constitutional system we have."

DiNapoli said in a statement that as the state's chief fiscal officer and auditor, he has the responsibility to oversee how tax dollars are spent, no matter where they go.

"The courts have correctly upheld the state comptroller's power to audit charter schools. Taxpayers have a right to know how the $140 million in taxpayer money that goes to charter schools each year is spent," he said.

The Comptroller's Office said in court papers that charter schools, like public school districts, lack the capacity to challenge the constitutionality of state legislation.

Because of the lawsuit, charter-school audits by the Comptroller's Office have been frozen for the past nine months, a spokeswoman for DiNapoli said. The agency issued 18 before that.

State legislators passed a law in 2005 to increase the comptroller's fiscal oversight of all school districts, including charters, following audits that found serious incidents of financial mismanagement in the Roslyn School District on Long Island.

The state Legislature and governor authorized charter schools 10 years ago to provide a new vehicle for improving education and give families more choice in schools. There are 115 charter schools operating this year, and nearly 30 more have been approved to open in the next year and a half, according to the Charter Schools Association. The state can authorize up to 200 of them.

New York State United Teachers praised the ruling. The court case is about accountability for using public dollars, said NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi. "Charters were looking to be excused from that accountability, and that was just wrong."

The comptroller is saying that the standard has to be the same for everyone, Iannuzzi said.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi speaks to reporters at the end of an intense day on Capitol Hill. L-R: New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; Rep. George Miller; Iannuzzi; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. Photo by Mike Campbell.

"I don't know why they would want to avoid it unless they have something to hide," he said.

NYSUT represents about 600,000 classroom teachers and other school employees, along with faculty and other professionals at the state and city universities and other education and health professionals. The union, which represents teachers in some charter schools, has been critical of charters and the financial impact they have on the public school system. Money follows students as they move from public school to a charter school, and cities with a large number of charter schools have been heavily impacted financially.

Charter schools are "incubators for new ideas" and methods that could improve education, Iannuzzi said.

Parents Advocating School Accountability

Article published Feb 25, 2009
Creative school solutions welcome

An interesting proposition arose in New York City earlier this month. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio (see following article - Ed.) of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn suggested that four Catholic schools scheduled for closing could be turned into public charter schools.
Details of the plan were reported in the New York Times, including skeptical comments from those involved in Catholic education elsewhere.
"Charter schools have taken some of the key elements we've prided ourselves on over the years. I'm very concerned about enrollment," said Sister Jane Herb, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Albany.
There has also been some speculation that Bloomberg's move would play well for him in a future election.
The report also noted that in New York state, such a move would require a approval by the state legislature because current state law bars charter schools from being tied to any religious institution. Both Bloomberg and DiMarzio noted that the city would lease the buildings and religious instruction would be banned and religious symbols would be covered.
The Erie area has found success with temporary leasing arrangements between public schools and closed Catholic schools. J.S. Wilson Middle School rented St. Andrew School while Wilson, in the Millcreek Township School District, was renovated. The Erie School District currently has a lease at Sacred Heart School while Erie tries to determine how to replace its aged Roosevelt Middle School.
Could there be room for a longer-lasting alliance? The federal stimulus money has funds for shovel-ready projects, but it would be worthwhile to explore whether buildings that were shovel-ready decades ago could find new, permanent reuse to educate our youth.

Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio donates to politician whose ma will rule on saving diocese schools
BY Brendan Brosh, DAILY NEWS WRITER, Tuesday, February 17th 2009, 4:00 AM

Brooklyn's Catholic bishop made a rare political donation last month to a City Council candidate whose mother has power over a plan to save several parochial schools, the Daily News has learned.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, (at right) whose diocese also includes Queens, personally contributed $250 to Queens candidate Geraldine M. Chapey (pictured at right) on Jan. 7, city campaign finance records show.

The donation came a month before DiMarzio and Mayor Bloomberg announced the city plans to convert some struggling Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens into charter schools.

Chapey's mother is a member of the state Board of Regents, which has the power to approve charter schools.

"I guess religion has a place in politics now," said Glenn DiResto, a retired NYPD lieutenant who is running against Chapey in a special election for the Council seat vacated by new state Sen. Joseph Addabbo.

"It creates a suspicion of impropriety. This is politics as usual," DiResto said.

Another candidate, Lew Simon, called the contribution a "conflict of interest."

"I've never seen the church speak out on a candidate before," Simon said.

DiMarzio - who heads a diocese of nearly 1-1/2 million Catholics - said there was no quid pro quo with the politically connected family.

"You can't make the connection," said DiMarzio, who said he has known Chapey for the past five years. "It doesn't exist."

The donation is actually worth $772, because it qualifies for a $522 match with taxpayer money under Campaign Finance Board rules.

It appears to be the 64-year-old bishop's first donation to any city, state or federal candidate, a search of campaign finance records shows. DiMarzio said he had donated to "very few" candidates "back in New Jersey" but couldn't remember their names.

A search of New Jersey campaign finance and lobbying records did not reveal any donations from DiMarzio.

Chapey's mother, Geraldine D. Chapey, who has sat on the Board of Regents since 1998 did not return a call for comment.

The plan to convert four Brooklyn and Queens Catholic schools into charter schools is still fluid, but the diocese plans to establish a nonprofit to oversee them. They could no longer offer religious education.

The proposal faces a number of legislative hurdles, and the state would need to pass a law for the plan to go through.

Council candidate Chapey - who seeks to represent portions of the Rockaways, Howard Beach and Ozone Park - said she hadmade no agreement with the bishop.

"The bishop is a citizen, and he's participating in the democratic process," said Chapey, a local Democratic district leader. "There was no discussion about charter schools. Absolutely and totally not. N.O. No discussion. That would be evil."

DiMarzio stressed that his donation was made as a private citizen. He said he doesn't expect Chapey to vote along church lines if she's elected.

"She's not the regent," DiMarzio said. "Her mother is. She is a very good parishioner of the diocese."

The National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers

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