Expose school district fraud now

For some strange reason, lay school boards seem reluctant to let the public know when they have been bilked by civil employees. The same reluctance generally doesn't hold when the corrupt worker is in a police department, local bank, or part of the local government.

Those who discover fraud in these areas seem more than willing to broadcast the error -- the better, they often allege, to discourage more of the same by other criminally inclined employees.

But let the superintendent of schools, or the business manager or purchasing agent of a school district, or one or more bookkeepers work a bilking scheme with public funds under the noses of elected or appointed members of a local school board, and the exposure is not only "hushed up" but seldom are criminal charges brought.

Why is it that fraud with public funds in a school district is kept "secret" and often goes unpunished, while fraud in other areas of local government is not only punished but widely "advertised"?

The cynical suggestion is that 'all" are on the take; that is, that everyone who might "blow the whistle" is somehow reaping benefits and so it is not in his selfish "best interest" to expose the wrongdoing.

But there is much evidence that, even when the majority of school board members and the highest officials in the school board district are absolutely innocent of any fraud or criminal activity of any kind, they nevertheless join in the conspiracy of silence.

And it is conspiracy. Only good will come from airing criminal use of public funds. It is only wise to close the barn door after the horse is already out, but wiser yet to set a watch on the barn door until the temptation to open it unlawfully is passed.

There is no evidence that school districts have benefited from not exposing fiscal wrongdoing, or that the individuals involved have repented because they have gone unpunished. In fact, the opposite appears true -- the very individuals who should be punished end up in another school district, where, unless the system is "foolproof," they continue their nefarious activities.

And so, three cheers for the Dallas Independent School District!

Apparently some school officials did something very wrong here, and while no indictments have as yet been handed down (this column was written Jan. 10), there have been firings of high-level administrators. More than a dozen investigations have taken place regarding business procedures and practices in this large and affluent school district, which have so far involved the FBI, the county district attorney's office, and a detective agency.

Some of the alleged improprieties are: the awarding of million-dollar contracts without competitive bidding; awarding contracts to companies in which a school official (or near-relative) holds part interest; bid rigging between a school architect and contractors; the disappearance of funds; property theft.

The Dallas scandal is public knowledge, not only in Dallas, but across the nation. It's been the subject of numerous articles in educational journals, and the editor of the prestigious Phi Delta Kappan magazine thought it important enough to lead off the January 1980 issue with an "airing" of Dallas's problems.

Fraud is fraud. Stealing is stealing. And public disclosure as well as appropriate punishment for the guilty is good for both the wrongdoer and the innocent.

Patricia Roberts Harris, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, visiting with Moniotor editors in Boston recently, explained that hundreds of school districts had incomplete audits of government grants. It's possible that many of these "incompletes" are only the result of carelessness or delayed posting of bills, but her implication was that many of the districts just do not know where all the money in a specific grant has gone.

Let me say that again: Many school districts cannot satisfy government auditors that the money they received was spent for what it was intended.

It may be the videotape recorders. The school district says it purchased 25, but auditors can only find evidence that 10 were bought.

The school district may report that 150 school aides worked 1,500 hours, but auditors can only trace payroll checks to fewer than 90, and no hours were posted.

The school district says it paid five consultants to do curriculum planning, but there is no record of planning sessions, and only two consultants received verifiable payments. Who got that money?

This sort of criminal activity has gone on too long and has undoubtedly contributed in a large measure to the public's impression that US public schools aren't doing a good enough job.

Whatever the reasons in the past for not disclosing such activity to the public, whatever the reasons for not disclosing how public funds have been misused by those in the public trust, let it cease today. And as in Dallas, let's investigate, bring indictments, and punish the guilty, freeing the innocent to carry on without the downward pull of criminal conspiracy.

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