In conversation with ... Adam Edelen
on audits of local school districts by the state auditor’s office
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts, whose office has turned up some eye-popping findings in audits of several local school districts. He discusses how districts are being selected for the audits and why all school systems shouldn’t be painted with the same brush.
Q. Given that there are city councils, city commissions, fiscal courts – all overseen by elected officials, like school boards, why zero in on school boards?
A. I reject the notion that we’re zeroing in on school boards. Our efforts need to reflect our priorities, and in my view, we’ve got no more important role in Kentucky than educating kids. It is the silver bullet – it absolutely represents most precisely and most completely our opportunity to move Kentucky forward. You have to understand that the mission in my view of educating young people is the most important responsibility that state or local governments have. The amount of resources we invest in this far outpaces any other investment that the taxpayers’ make. So my interest in effective education of kids is based on, one, a belief we all have a moral obligation to make sure children have all the resources they need to be able to compete in a global economy. And secondly, given the amount that taxpayers invest in this effort, I think it’s extraordinarily important that we make sure the commitment to the taxpayers is upheld as well.
I’m not in the business of chasing or needing scalps. Believe me, folks nominate themselves for the attention of this office every day. What is drawing my interest as the taxpayer watchdog is that this is without question the most important function of government we have in Kentucky.
Q. How are you choosing the districts that you’re auditing?
A. As you know, every school district is audited every year by an independent auditing firm that is overseen by a committee I chair. So we’re already confident that base-level audits are being performed in all 174 school districts. What we’re seeing now is the result of citizen-based complaints that come in, communications that we have with the Kentucky Department of Education and a partnership we formed with the Office of Education Accountability. Certainly the three or four investigations we’ve conducted into school boards over the last several months have been a product of the partnership with OEA and the others the result of credible citizen-based complaints that have come into my office.
Q. You mentioned the base-level audits that the CPAs do. How does your work differ — because I think people wonder why do your findings look so different from what the local CPA turns up?
A. What CPA firms do is they produce a financial audit of the operation of the agency. What they do is align credits and debits; they make sure that the numbers on every part of the ledger add up. What they don’t have the means to do is to go in and drill down and find the fraud and abuse that my office clearly has the skill set to do and has done so for a number of years.
Q. When you get the citizen complaints, how do you sort the wheat from the chafe?
A. We’re not in the business of chasing those who are doing the right thing or those who are attempting to do the right thing. When we find complaints that come to our office – tips that are actionable and speak to serious fraud, things that don’t reflect a mistake in process but a deficiency in character and culture – those are the ones we’re more interested in pursuing.
Q. I know you did a culminating report on the special districts. Do you have something in mind for the school districts as well?
A. It would be different, because the level of oversight that school districts have is vastly superior to the oversight these (special) districts have. What I expect will come out of our reviews of school boards is a system of best practices. Because this isn’t just about catching folks doing the wrong thing – more often than not I think it’s about capturing best practices that are used in school districts that may be more applicable statewide. I’m a huge fan of the efforts of local school districts, but what I’m particularly concerned about is that a number of them are being lumped in with those who aren’t doing the right thing. And that’s fundamentally unfair. So identifying the bad actors, holding them accountable, making sure that school boards are robust in their oversight and not merely rubber stamps for the administration, I think, are the fundamental tenets of a well-run school district. And my view is, that in the vast majority of cases we have in Kentucky, that is clearly the rule rather than the exception.
Q. If most of your work is centering on those who aren’t doing best practices, how are you going to find best practices to hold up as examples?
A. We’re keenly interested in working with not only KDE but the school districts themselves and the organizations that represent them to identify best practices that may be applicable more broadly. Not every audit, every investigation we do will be aimed at ferreting out bad actors; if there’s a specific policy area in which we have an interest, people shouldn’t be frightened to hear the auditor’s office is on the line or that we have an interest in what’s going on in their school district. They only ought to be frightened if they’ve been doing something wrong. Education and what it represents for the future of Kentucky is critical – and we have to make sure that great ideas and examples of great leadership are being shared statewide and we need to make sure those who are not meeting their obligation to the kids they’re trusted to educate or to the taxpayers that pay the freight – we’ve got to ferret those folks out.
Q. You mentioned the best practices idea. What about legislation for school districts?
A. I’m a big believer in the fundamental tenets of KERA. I’m a tremendous believer in local control of our school districts. And I don’t know that what we need is more meddling from the legislature. I think what we need is districts who are being innovative and creative and effective or who try to be those things ought to be free to pursue those aims. I think that my office is more than capable of ferreting out the bad actors through partnerships with the KDE or OEA or the public in general.
Q. In the audits that you’ve done thus far, have you seen any common threads?
A. There have been some common threads. We have found a lack of oversight that you wouldn’t want to see at the school board level. School board members are elected, they are entrusted with an extraordinarily important role by the people and I think they need to be reminded – although I believe most fundamentally understand that they work for the taxpayer and not the administrations – that what I want is not an adversarial relationship but one in which you’ve got school board members who are fulfilling their obligation of making sure the kids are getting the best quality education they possibly can while protecting public resources. What we have seen in the districts we have found trouble in is a lack of a strong school board and frankly, a lack of people paying attention.
I understand the complexity of education. As the youngest member of the Prichard Committee, I chaired the board of KET – I don’t know that there are many better champions for public education and public life in Kentucky. But before we can justify the needed investment that we need in our school systems, we’ve got to demonstrate that we’re making an effort to right-size school districts, to make sure the educational bureaucracies are there to support solely student achievement and to make sure we’re making and operating as lean and as efficient operations as we possibly can.
Q. Do you feel like this (lack of oversight) stems from venality or perhaps from not understanding their role?
A. I think anytime someone is in a position for a very long time, there is a potential for confusing the mission: The mission isn’t about supporting administration; the mission is about driving student achievement and doing it in a way that reflects the sensitivity to the investment the taxpayers make. I don’t want to draw distinctions – I’m not here to question motives; I’m only here to make determinations about the way people run their school districts.
Q. I think the thing that frustrates school board members is they’re always told, ‘Don’t micromanage, you’re not administrators,’ and in some cases you cross that line, it’s illegal. How do you reconcile that with what you’re proposing as far as oversight? Where is that line?
A. I would say that in terms of making sure that kids are getting a quality education and that resources are being spent in a way that supports student achievement, there is no line. Because there’s no more fundamental obligation for a school board member than to protect the quality of education and protect the public resources. So I just discount that completely.
I don’t believe that school board folks ought to have to feel like there’s some certain line that they have to adhere to in terms of making sure the public dollars are being spent properly or making sure those scarce dollars we have are properly being invested to support student achievement.
Q. How long is this project going to go on? Are you just going to continuously audit school districts?
A. I think the current process for auditing of school districts, governed by the state audit committee I chair, is something that works very, very well. But wherever we find a specific complaint that raises the question of waste, fraud or abuse within what is an immensely large and important layer of government, we’re going to be there.
So we hope to be able to release in 2013 some findings, some best practices to be put into place, maybe some more effective recommendations for school governance, but as long as I’m in this office as the taxpayer watchdog, we certainly will act upon credible complaints that have merit.
Q. What would your overarching message be to school boards?
A. My overarching message to school boards would be ‘Keep up the good work.’ If you sense the driving force in your community is not a proper relationship between the superintendent and the school board, then that’s something that ought to be changed. Always be vigilant and attentive to abuses of the taxpayer trust and make sure at the end of the day we never lose sight of the fact that the school boards exist, and those who support school districts, we all exist to make sure kids get a world-class education.