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SoVaNow.com / November 06, 2013Catching up with the news (backlog edition):
A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a recent audit of school activity funds intended for student extracurricular activities, such as field trips, assemblies and the like. The audit, by the local accounting firm of Creedle, Jones & Alga, P.C., showed that the accounts instead have been tapped by Superintendent of Schools James Thornton to circumvent the normal budget process. For those who wondered where the money came from to buy new desks and chairs for the new Project Based Learning curriculum, now we have our answer.
The story in brief: the student activity funds basically are set up as small-potato accounts, the place where the money from athletic concessions and club fees is supposed to go. Under Thornton, the accounts have been used for purposes never envisioned by the Virginia Department of Education, which established the rules for their use. The Creedle, Jones & Alga auditors found that spending from the accounts, normally handled at the individual school level and restricted to student extracurricular activities, has more or less been taken over by Thornton, who has shifted money in and out to pay for items at his whim. The result: decisions that “are not consistent with [DOE] directives” which represent “act[s] of noncompliance.”
This may sound like dry stuff to the layman’s ears, but it’s strong language to throw around in the world of accounting. As one reads through the management letter accompanying the audit, the implications grow more ominous. Essentially, Thornton used these funds to pursue pet initiatives without much, if any, oversight, from within or without. This is not to say the superintendent fraudulently spent the money; thumbing his nose at budget rules, however, that’s a different story. This is a recurring theme with Thornton: he displays a habit of doing what he wants, when he wants, with seeming little regard for the consequences. He’s earned every bit of scrutiny that he’s brought upon himself.
PBL-inspired purchases of rounded desks and chairs, a topic of widespread derision around the county, offer a telling illustration of the Thornton modus operandi. Ordinary, the purchase of furnishings would have been made using funds from the capital budget, over which the Board of Supervisors exerts some control. By resorting instead to the student activity funds at each school — with the Central Office directing big chunks of money into the accounts to pay for the furniture — Thornton was able to skirt the argument of whether the acquisitions were justified in the first place.
We take no position on this latter question; it’s possible the PBL curriculum may indeed demand a big investment in ergonomics, although it’s hard to look at what would seem to be perfectly serviceable desks and chairs tossed in a junk heap and not think that someone just wasted a lot of money. (It’s always hard to know, given the woeful state of Mecklenburg school facilities, what qualifies as wasteful spending and what does not. Our overriding view is that any expenditure to prolong the lifespan of schools whose sell-by date expired sometime in the Nixon Administration represents good money chasing after bad.) Whatever the truth is on the need for new furniture, one thing we do know: school administrators must be open about their actions and accountable for them. To use school-level, little-heeded accounts to make big ticket purchases without the input of people putting up the money is beyond inappropriate; it needs to come to an end, plain and simple.
There are a couple of other notable findings from the audit: one, by making purchases at the individual school level, chock-a-block, the Central Office avoided procurement rules that require that major expenditures be put out for bid. This is just bad practice all around, inviting suspicion of favoritism and, if not that, bad management practice. (It’s hard to imagine how school-by-school procurement would qualify Mecklenburg schools for any volume price discounts.) The second problem flagged by the auditors is Thornton’s penchant for running over anyone who might presume to stand in the way of his decisions. There’s a passage in the audit management letter that describes how the superintendent ordered for a check to be cut to give a coach at Bluestone a salary advance. “Our discussions with the staff indicated that they knew it was not proper for them to issue this check but that they had been directly told to do so by the Superintendent of Schools,” states the management letter. “The staff should never be directed to circumvent accounting guidelines or controls.” The management letter closes out with a set of recommendations for a whistleblower policy to protect employees who may witness abuses. What does it say for the Central Office leadership that the audit letter’s big takeaway is a plea to protect the underlings?
I get why school superintendents, Thornton being a good example, gravitate towards an autocratic management style. Running a school division is a tough job, one that invites criticism both fair and not so fair, oftentimes coming from people who don’t have the best interests of education at heart. Given all this, I’d probably be eager to cut the naysayers and the nags out of the process, too, and keep them in the dark. Yet the system is not meant to work this way. Actions must be justified, decisions must be revealed, money must be spent as budgeted and appropriated, and differences in outlook must be respected. Laundering capital purchases through student activities funds is just the sort of abuse that is supposed to trigger the checks and balances that supposedly make the system work. The most important check on the Mecklenburg school superintendent is the Mecklenburg County School Board. Might the time have arrived for its members to fulfill that role?
At the time of this writing, Virginians were still voting in elections for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, so we won’t venture too many observations about the meaning of it all until next week in this space. However, all the polls and the tea leaves pointed to convincing victories for the top two Democrats on the statewide ticket, Terry McAuliffe for governor and Ralph Northam for lieutenant governor, with a decent shot of the Dems scoring a sweep with Attorney General hopeful Mark Herring taking a much closer win over his rival, GOP nominee Mark Obenshain.
If all goes down as expected, we’ll be hearing a lot in the next few days about how the outcome turned on this factor or that: the federal government shutdown, the Star Scientific scandal involving Bob McDonnell (and Ken Cuccinelli!), the evolution of Virginia from a red to a purple to (who knows?) a true-blue state. Each of these explanations may have some basis in reality, yet I really don’t think any of them captures the nub of the matter. Here’s a simpler explanation: people are dog-tired of in-your-face, confrontational, extremist politics, and while no one in the business exactly has clean hands in this regard, no one muddies things up quite like the Tea Party.
Candidate Cuccinelli’s strident tone throughout the race — the strategy of a man who knows his only real hope is to tear down the other guy — makes him temperamentally the perfect Tea Party candidate. His running mate, E.W. Jackson, burst onto the scene like perfection squared, a hero to the cause, despite exhibiting the classic characteristics (evident to everyone else) of being a charlatan and a fraud. How bad a failure has Cuccinelli’s strategy, and persona, been? Let’s put it this way: when Terry McAuliffe is able to emerge as the minimally-acceptable alternative in the race, that’s a colossal failure of strategy.
At any rate, next week we’ll attempt to venture a fuller post mortem. And why bother to rush? It’s gonna be a long four years ahead.