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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 6, 2007
Schools need templates, Mr. Comptroller
As any good teacher will tell you, the best way to teach is by example. This is true even at the most elementary level. Imagine a classroom of first-graders who are expected to learn a lesson without having one presented. What if the teacher only scolded them for their mistakes or, worse still, publicly humiliated them, announcing their errors rather than showing them the correct way to complete the task"
This is what the state comptroller is doing to public schools across New York.
The office, under former comptroller Alan Hevesi, revived its audits of public schools in New York after flagrant abuse was discovered on Long Island. Part of the comptrollers function is to be a watchdog, safeguarding public funds. The watchdog was sleeping in Roslyn, the Long Island district where fraud amounted to more than $11 million. Resuming the offices long-dormant practice of auditing schools was a wise decision.
Many of the audits have turned up problems that need fixing; the release of the reports to the public allows for needed scrutiny. But the process needs to be pro-active as well as re-active.
A case in point is the state audit, released Monday, on the Guilderland School District. One school board member, Peter Golden, called a session with state auditors "the root canal of committee meetings."
"Without anesthesia," chimed in another school board member, Colleen O’Connell. Both of them serve on the board’s audit committee.
That committee, chaired by Richard Weisz, president of the school board, met on Monday to discuss the state audit. The state study found no fraud, theft, or abuse in Guilderland but pointed out what the comptrollers office considered to be four problems.
One was "insufficient segregation of duties in the internal controls over cash receipts and disbursements."
To save money, the district had used one person. "We’ve been adding part-time employees at a feverish pitch to deal with conflicts of duty," said Weisz.
Neil Sanders, the districts assistant superintendent for business, said that Guilderland in this year alone has spent an additional $71,250 for auditing, to meet new government requirements and recommendations. That figure will largely reoccur annually, he told us yesterday.
"We have years of loyal service and have to spend taxpayer money to prevent a risk we never felt was here," said Weisz.
"The reason it’s so obsessive," said Golden, "is because the abuse was so outrageous."
What most frustrates the audit committee members, though, is there is no template offered by the comptrollers office to guide school districts on how the duties could best be structured for efficiency and safety.
Weisz had earlier summed up his stance to the auditors this way: "If you would tell us the way you want us to do it in a template, we would do it that way."
"Our audits are useful tools to help local officials deliver services more efficiently and effectively and ensure that taxpayer dollars are protected," said Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in a statement released with the Guilderland audit.
Pointing out a problem is a first step. Offering a solution is a necessary second step one without the other makes for a short and frustrating journey. Its also expensive for the taxpayers.
The State Education Department, in launching a set of new learning standards for schools across New York, supplied a series of detailed expectations, and further offers a range of best practices that teachers can learn from to craft effective lessons.
Guilderland audit committee members were particularly frustrated when another similar school district, Ballston Spa, was lauded in a press release from the comptrollers office but yet the office could offer no specifics from that audit for Guilderland to follow in structuring its own system.
"They said Ballston Spa did things perfectly but they refused to tell us what to do. There is no template," said Weisz.
Another example from the Guilderland audit is the criticism that the district "has not developed a formal disaster recovery plan for its computerized data."
Sanders told the audit committee he could find no templates for a high-school disaster recovery plan.
"We’re being cited for something nobody has"" asked an incredulous O’Connell.
"Correct," replied Sanders.
How wasteful to have each school district across the state struggling in isolation, spending time and money, to develop a plan for data recovery in a disaster.
"You can’t learn anything from anybody," said Weisz. "They only tell you when you do something wrong."
The comptrollers office could, like the education department, serve as a clearinghouse for successful practices and post them on its website for other school districts to follow.
"A top priority," the comptroller’s office writes at the start of the Guilderland audit, "is to help district officials manage their districts efficiently and effectively and, by so doing, provide accountability for tax dollars spent to support district operations."
This goal would better be served if the office provided detailed examples from successful schools that districts could choose among. Such a system would benefit taxpayers by saving money, and would benefit students by allowing more effort and funds to be spent on learning.
Melissa Hale Spencer, editor
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