Friday, April 04, 2008

Hey! That’s Our Money!

For a good part of my career as an attorney for the Federal Government I taught a course called “Principals of Appropriations Law.” I taught the course to other lawyers, to budget officers, to procurement officers, to contracting officers and to myriad other government personnel. In that course I taught the laws and rules governing the proper use of public money. Of all the things I tried to impress upon my students, the most important was that the funds they were administering did not belong to them. Rather, these funds belonged to the taxpayers. It was crucial, therefore, that they only use these funds for authorized purposes and in authorized ways.

Well, after reading the Executive Summary and skimming carefully through the rest of the City Auditor’s latest report on the purchasing and accounts payable functions of Richmond Public Schools, it is apparent to me that there a whole bunch of people working for RPS who need to take the course. The report found many weaknesses in the RPS procurement and bill paying mechanisms. It made 102 recommendations on how RPS could improve these functions and eliminate wasteful spending. (If you want to look at the report, you can download it from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. However, unless you’re a real lover of audit reports or a masochist, I would recommend that you only read the
Executive Summary).

On the evening news last night I watched Superintendent of Schools Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman discussing the audit report. As quoted in the TD this morning, Dr. Jewell-Sherman likened the audit report to a returned graduate school paper. “In graduate school, if you are going to get less than a B on a paper, your professor hands it back and says: redo. This is a redo.”
Schools audit sparks calls for change I understand the superintendent’s desire to put the proper spin on the auditor’s findings. I also understand that the purpose of an audit is to help an organization recognize and fix its shortcomings. It is not intended to be an indictment. However, there is a certain lack of accountability in the superintendent’s statement that bothers me. I would have much preferred “We blew it. I am responsible. We will do better in the future.” Calling the audit report a “redo” shows a lack of appreciation for the fact that a lot of taxpayer money was wasted by the weaknesses in RPS’s operations.

Dr. Jewell-Sherman’s statement also fails to recognize the devastating effect this audit report has on the already weak public support for Richmond Public Schools. The superintendent needs to look at the public comments last night on the TD’s first story on the audit report.
Auditor blasts Richmond school system There are five pages of comments and most of them are quite negative.

In a recent post (
You Got Trouble Folks! Right Here In River City) I reiterated my five principals for repairing Richmond Public Schools: 1-Treating all students as if they were our own; 2- demanding excellence from all our students; 3- Holding our teachers accountable for their students’ learning; 4- responsible budgeting; and 5- accountability. In talking about accountability I indicated that the voters of Richmond should hold both the City Council and the School Board accountable for the operation of our public schools. I said that the School Board must hold the superintendent accountable for the day to day operation of the schools. I concluded with “Every person who has authority to spend school funds must be held strictly accountable for the money they spend.” I see now that that last sentence didn’t go far enough.

In a subsequent post (
A Watchdog with Teeth) I quoted from the Government Auditing Standards in setting forth the accountability of public officials or employees in dealing with public funds. In short, those entrusted with handling public resources are:
1- responsible for applying those resources “efficiently, economically, and effectively” for the purposes for which the resources were provided;
2- responsible for complying with applicable laws and regulations;
3- responsible for establishing and maintaining effective controls to ensure that the funds are properly and efficiently used; and
4- accountable to the public for the resources provided to carry out government programs and services.

The School Board and the Superintendent of Schools need to regain public confidence in Richmond Public Schools. They must establish an atmosphere of accountability throughout the school system. They must teach every employee that s/he is personally responsible to the taxpayers for the way s/he uses public resources. They must establish a system of internal controls in RPS that greatly reduces the possibility of misuse of funds. They cannot allow mismanagement in operations to cloud what is the real mission of Richmond Public Schools—to provide a world-class education to every child in the city.


Gray said...

Regarding "Treating all students as if they were our own" - You have to be careful with this one in the schools. Just the other night I was a visitor at a friend's church when a public school teacher described to me how she disciplined her own children, "I spanked them until their faces turned beet red," then she added how she couln't stand the students of the "time out parents." And when I struck up conversation about the tweener years and the recent work shop (based on scientific research) I had gone too, she said, "You don't mean you believe that?" And she went on and on about the "spare the rod, spoil the child" quote from the bible. I wanted to tell her my interpretation of the "rod" but she just mowed me over while this other tall church lady looked at me with disdain. Enough on that.

James River Maven, you should consider running for School Board. And I enjoy your writing.

Keith West said...


I've always been in general agreement with your goals, but not confident that we could reach them with our current cast of players.

Last night I used the example of President Lincoln going through 5 generals before he got to Grant. What if he had stopped at 4? Would we today be a united country?

The point is that we do not have to settle. There exists people who can lead the school system. We need to find them.

The board is the first problem. It doesn't understand its role and forever spins its wheels. That is not a personal indictment of any member. All of Lincoln's generals were accomplished West Pointers who went on to other achieve other things. Certain times call for certain people.

I encourage everyone to support new members for School Board in their district. Anyone interested in running can visit

Keith West