By Madelynn Coldiron
School board members, administrators and educators learned the latest on making their schools both fiscally safer and physically safer at KSBA’s annual Federal and State Law Update session in May.
In both instances, the topics were propelled by events from the outside: a December school shooting in Connecticut that killed 26, including 20 children, and the ongoing multifaceted audits of school districts by the Kentucky state auditor’s office.
KSBA Associate Executive Director David Baird reviewed key findings and recommendations from high-profile reviews of several districts conducted by the state auditor’s office, while Teresa T. Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Training Services, summarized state laws relating to the financial oversight duties of school boards.
The bottom line, Baird said, “is we recommend training, training, training. There can never be enough training … to make sure we are all in line with what needs to be done.”
PHOTO: Teresa T. Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Training Services, leads a session on the financial oversight duties of school boards.
While Kentucky education reform transferred some authority from boards to superintendents, “sometimes people forget there are a lot of responsibilities that still remain with the board of education,” Combs said.
Among those are responsibility for the district budget, hiring the superintendent, issuing bonds, purchasing property, and approving pay schedules and job descriptions.
“Basically, the board of education is in charge of every dollar in the district that the law doesn’t say has to be allocated to somebody else: that is still your responsibility,” Combs told attendees, who included school board members, administrators and other educators.
Combs and Baird also cut through the confusion among boards about the differences between the annual audit their district receives from a certified public accountant and the type of review conducted by the state auditor’s office. The CPA’s work generally is “a surface audit” that follows KDE guidelines, ensuring that accounts are balanced, Baird said.
However, he noted, “You can engage your auditor and say ‘We would like to have a more thorough audit done.’” This kind of more intensive audit would not have to be done every year, he added.
The state auditor looks at management, policies and procedures, generally triggered by a complaint. Because of that, Baird said, “When those complaints come in, do not dismiss it. Make sure that you take it seriously. Make sure you have a very thorough understanding of what the charges are or what the accusation is and that you handle it in a very professional manner.”
Baird covered audit findings ranging from undocumented expenses to unauthorized payment of employee salaries and from excessive spending on travel to superintendent expenses.
“One of the things the state auditor used over and over again was … he asked the question ‘What is the educational benefit of this expenditure? And if the answer is, ‘We’re not sure there is an educational benefit,’ you’d better be careful of how you’re spending that money,” he said.
Some board members attending the session indicated they had difficulty getting financial and other reports from district staff. Combs encouraged them to request the reports, and if necessary, the entire board can vote to require the information to be supplied.
“You should be provided enough information to make you comfortable with your decision,” she said, advising board members, “Do not vote on anything you may not be comfortable with.”
The Connecticut school shooting prompted the 2013 General Assembly to pass legislation that makes it mandatory for schools to prepare emergency management plans and review them annually with staff and first responders, to hold several types of drills twice a year and to tighten access to buildings.
“We need to beef up our emergency management plans and then hold people accountable,” said Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. “Some principals have plans that haven’t been dusted off in 15 years.”
While spurred on by this most recent tragedy, the school emergency management plans are really a multipurpose tool that can be used not only in threats of violence, but for earthquake, severe weather and fire, Akers told attendees at the gathering. The plans must be adopted by school councils. Each classroom must also post primary and secondary evacuation routes.
The new law tightens access to school buildings and even interior doors, but Akers stressed that the human element is still the most critical factor in securing schools. Teachers and others must be taught not to prop open exterior doors, students must be told to not let anyone in the building and school office staff need to be more vigilant in buzzing in visitors, he said.
“You can design the best building possible but if a teacher props open a side door, you’re vulnerable,” Akers said.
He also weighed in on two other measures that were promoted nationally following the Connecticut shooting: metal detectors and arming teachers and principals. He opposes both, saying students up to no good will evade the metal detectors by using other entrances and that “there are all kinds of liabilities” in arming educators. Akers recommends recruiting retired police officers instead.