Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Have Been Schooled

Some readers have corrected my assertion that the bond for the 47 Million was in 2006.  I am learning that it was actually 2008, and that a smaller bond was in 2006.  Thank you for pointing this out.  I havent yet found published results for the 2008 election, but will publish a link to them when I do.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Updated: The Ethics of Oversight

The Central School Board has a problem. From their perspective, it may seem small at the moment. Having to deal with a few complaining citizens has probably always been part of the job. But they may not realize that the substance of the complaints is no longer about programs and policies. It’s really not even about education. It’s about ethics and honesty. It’s about money, and it’s about oversight.

Here are some examples of flagrant waste that concern me:

Vacation time reimbursed without authorization

Personal expense budget exceeded without authorization and personal recreational activities paid for by school district funds

Non-bond funding used for items in the original bond description.

Specified and contracted items in the bond not delivered

Concerns are growing amongst staff, teachers and now citizens about district office expenditures as well as the bond fund. And right alongside those questions we are asking where does the buck stop in the Central School District? The board should be the supreme authority, but they don’t seem to be asking questions, pushing back, or demanding accountability from the superintendant.

When the public sees evidence of wrongdoing and mismanagement in the district, and hears that the school board has let this behavior pass, we wonder how many other things have happened that we are not aware of. We wonder how the school board can not be aware. Or, assuming they might be aware, we wonder if they are complicit and approving of wasteful and harmful behavior.

Let me tell you a story. This is a story told by my ethics professor at a business college, many moons ago. It’s a true story about a local manager of a large non-profit organization and his treasurer, and it goes like this: The manager traveled much for his work, and so he got in the habit of signing checks in advance, so that the treasurer could take care of routine business when the manager was out of town.

The treasurer’s family was dealing with some major medical issues. Once when the manager was out of town, a large bill came due to the treasurer. This non-profit organization collects donations for people with medical issues or other needs. The managers have control of the dispersal of this money. So the treasurer, justifying himself by saying that the manager would probably give him the money if he were to apply for it, wrote himself a check for several thousand dollars and paid his bill.

When the manager returned, the treasurer felt a little too shy to explain what he had done, so he didn’t bring it up. The manager continued to sign blank checks as usual, and was eventually gone out of town again. At the treasurer’s home, another bill came due, and he again took money from the organization without asking by using the signed checks. This happened several times. Eventually, guilt compelled him to confess to the manager what he had done. But by then this poor treasurer had stolen many thousands of dollars.

I don’t know how this story ended for the treasurer. The professor’s point in telling it was to highlight the manager’s unethical behavior. Yes, that’s right. The manager behaved unethically by placing the control of so much money into the hands of one man, without requiring accountability. The checks actually required two signatures, to facilitate accountability, but the manager defeated that system by signing blank checks. The treasurer was guilty of theft, to be sure, but the manager was responsible for creating the environment where theft could easily occur. And an otherwise honest man found the temptation too much to bear.

Is Central School Board, like the manager of this non-profit aid group, signing blank checks? If they are not performing their duty of oversight, they are guilty of creating an environment where a person might begin to think of district funds – given by taxpayers for the purpose of educating students – as completely under his own discretion and answerable to no one else.

The Central School Board’s own policy states that the board “assigns and holds the superintendent responsible for all the administrative functions of the district” (Policy Code BCD). “Holding responsible” means verifying that a task was completed according to the agreement (for example, a budget), and when it wasn’t, requiring the problem to be corrected as soon as possible. Holding responsible can also mean reprimanding, coaching, or terminating a relationship.

To salvage its reputation, the school board should take seriously the concerns that have been brought up, and take immediate and fully-corrective action.

Facts, Opinions, and Dialogue

UPDATE: Some readers have corrected me on the issue of when the 47 million bond was approved. It looks like it was 2008.  The one I saw in 2006 was a smaller bond.  I am still looking for published results of the 2008 election.

Until recently, my blogging has been infrequent and “humorous”. One of the luxuries of writing humor is that I can choose when to stray from the truth for the sake of a laugh. Likewise, the people who tell me that my writing is funny have no obligation to the truth.

But now that I’m writing about community affairs, I try to be very conscious of what’s true – or at least documented, versus what is my opinion. I don’t want to mislead people, or get people charged up emotionally based on only a kernel of truth. I want people to know what’s actually happening, the way I want to know, and make informed decisions. In the best cases I hope more of you will get involved, even if it takes the ugly truth to wake you up, as it did me.

I try to stick to documented facts and separate it from my opinion clearly, so that I can maintain some respect among you readers.

Another reason I need to be very careful about the truth is that I don’t want to ruin someone’s personal reputation through untruths. Though I have never personally spoken with any of them, I have the greatest respect for the individuals on the School Board. They are giving the sacrifice of unpaid public service. I know that if and when we do meet, we can do so respectfully, and maybe even cordially, if I’m diligently honest about how I pluck their feathers.

Also, I don’t want to be sued.

On the other hand, I think they are ruining their own reputation as a board, and I am making it my mission to loudly assist them in that process – by simply reporting what I know – if they don’t take the hint and change their ways.

Here on this blog, you and I can have a public dialogue about these issues, and raise awareness in the community. I appreciate you commenters that have noted my understatements and overstatements in my loud-mouth recommendations. I also appreciate the anonymous commenter today who wanted to set me straight about the history of the bond measure that gave us the school expansion.

I, and at least one other reader, did exactly what we should have done when told of my “inaccuracies.” I went to the source, and confirmed the truth. This is important, because honestly, I was working from memory before I was challenged on this fact. If I had been wrong, I would be posting that correction now.

So, to you commenters, anonymous or otherwise, I say bravo.

So to the specific issue raised today, I can say without a doubt that the bond measure passed in November 2006 with 54% of people who voted on this measure voting Yes. The rest of the figures are: 40% of the people who cast ballots that day in our district voted Yes. 26% of registered voters voted Yes. Here you can read the report yourself.

And the other fact I verified is that unemployment was at 5.1% that month, and it was 10.3%, more than double, last month.

Now, to the good man who was misinformed on these facts, I say, Thank you for reading and beginning to get involved and thinking about these issues. Keep reading, keep talking and listening, and let’s help everyone get the truth.

The other point, good fellow, is that the primary issue I wanted you to get from reading that blog was that YOUR tax money is paying for a 47 million dollar bond, and I’m concerned that this project may have been delivered without your best interests – and maybe not even the kids’ interest – as the top priority.

I really hope I’m wrong on that one.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trust me, this is funny!

Hey everyone!  Just thought you might like to know that I once thought this blog was going to be a humor blog.  Here are a couple of my favorite posts: Driving Mrs Boyack, and Bicycling Adventure.  I hope to devote more time to that in the future, and less time to community problems.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This is no Maytag! (Sorry for the long, long post here! The good stuff is at the bottom)

Attendees to Monday’s school board meeting were on the edge of decorum. Agitated, murmuring, and asking questions out of turn. There were strong statements of concern, with loud applause after those statements – as contrasted with polite applause after statements of congratulations and accomplishment.

There is a perception among at least some teachers that there are management problems in the district, that they are not being addressed, and that the board doesn’t want to hear about it.

My first school board meeting

I attended because I was angry. It is unfortunate that it took frustration and anger to bring me to my first attempt at civic responsibility. A nervous but enthusiastic rookie, at the very first meeting I attended, I rose to speak. I addressed the issue that roused me from slumber: the suspicion of very costly mismanagement at the district office. Judging by the applause and cheers I received, this concern was shared by many in the room.

However, the nerves I felt before and during my presentation never left me. I felt very uneasy about the unpleasant experience of being in an adversarial position with another human being. This is rare for me, especially in public.

I couldn’t sleep, and I have been thinking about this experience constantly for more than 24 hours now. I couldn’t get over how pathetic and embarrassing the whole meeting was. Complaints aired in public, emotions high, and a very complex organization to manage with scores of people watching and hoping for solutions. It seems impossible and hopeless.

This having been my first attendance to a school board meeting anywhere, I can’t say how this meeting compared to any other, or how this school district compares with any other. Certainly the problems faced by this district are common throughout the country: funding is shrinking while legislative mandates expand.

Dirty Laundry

In the middle of a long drive to work, the whole matter settled in my mind. The Central School District board has a public relations problem. Their reputation (as a collective group) is deteriorating within the district and in the community.

I compared the experience to what I know: publicly held, for-profit manufacturing companies. The school board is the board of directors; the superintendant is the CEO; the principals are the managers; the teachers operate the manufacturing equipment.

The school board meeting would translate like this: you invite customers, stockholders, and employees to one meeting, and then you open the mic to allow anyone to speak.

This would be a disaster in the private business world, in the best companies. A company’s reputation could be ruined by one bad actor, be it by blunder or bomb. A company with a contentious relationship with its employees would instantly fall apart.

The district has a big group of unhappy teachers. They’re unhappy about some important issues, and they’re looking for a place to air the dirty laundry. I went to the meeting in hopes of shining light on the issues, and I guess I did. I reached deep into the pile and got the stinkiest mess I knew about, drug it out into the public lobby, and hung it on the concierge’s desk.

This is embarrassing for me, for the board, for all the district employees, and for the entire community. Was it necessary? Maybe not. Was it helpful? Maybe not.

The real problem is this: the school district has no washing machine.

In a corporation, if management is capable at all, employee gripes are addressed when they reach critical mass. Maybe even before. But allowing employees to speak publicly about grievances and brushing it off as either trivial or out of the board’s control causes problems for the company’s image, and ultimately its profitability. Quality employees and managers leave for a more pleasant work environment; concerned customers look more closely at your competition; investors take another bet.

So corporations try to avoid this by developing specific policies and practices to resolve employee complaints before the spill out into public vies.  Occasionally there occurs a complete breakdown of trust between a manager and his employees. I have been through this twice: once as the incompetent manager, and once as the disgruntled employee. In the latter case, the VP I worked for was fired by the senior VP.

In the former case, my manager sat me down and said, “we have to be sure this position is the right one for you, and if it is not, we have to ask, is there a position at this company that is a good fit?” Ouch.

In both cases, the issue was brought to light by upset employees who went over their manager’s head to a figure they could trust. Someone who would listen. Someone with the power, and hopefully the wisdom, to make the needed change for the benefit of the company.

In both cases, until that meeting took place, good employees were leaving for other opportunities, who might perhaps have been retained if they had not been put off by their boss’s actions.

So how does this process work in Central school district? I’m still asking around, and I may be corrected, but what settled on my mind this morning is: it doesn’t. It’s not happening, at least not above the level of the school principals.

Perception is Reality

When the meeting came to order, the room was clearly divided into two groups: those who run the district, and the rest of us who don’t. The superintendent sits next to the board chairman, and three district employees sit in the same grouping with the board.

You may think I’m nitpicking here, but I see this as a problem. It’s not a giant problem if the meeting is primarily serving as a mechanism to inform the public of the state of the district and hear concerns form the public. A united front is desirable in that case.

But in my case, like several others who spoke, I was there to complain about district management. So there is the guy I want to complain about, sitting side by side with the people who are supposedly going to fix the problem. It’s like filing a complaint of assault and having the perpetrator accompany the police officer to take your statement. At first, you are incredulous. Then, when the words start flowing, they tend to come out with more animosity than they might otherwise.

And, of course, the rumor is that there is a personal friendship between the board members and the superintendent. I hope that’s not true. If it is, then even separating the tables won’t help people with complaints take the board more seriously.

In my completely unstudied opinion, the school board’s jobs are 1) setting policies, and 2) overseeing the superintendent’s work. This school board has ruined its reputation regarding #2. They seem not to notice any lapses by the superintendent. At least from what we outside the board can see.

Talk to the Hand

The other thing that was obviously frustrating to the people around me was that the rules of the board meeting don’t allow the public to ask questions of the board, or comment on any actions taken by the board.

At one point in the board business (I believe it was the issue of how public statements should be taken in board meetings), a kindergarten teacher spoke up politely and asked if she could ask a question. The school board president put out both her hands toward the woman, and stated the rule: “I’m sorry, questions are not allowed.”

The teacher sitting next to me couldn’t restrain herself: “That’s the problem!” There were murmurs of agreement.

The chairperson allowed the question, and it was  answered satisfactorily.  (For the record, I am not opposed to this rule).  This interchange was evidence to me - perhaps circumstantial at this point - that the teachers feeling of not being heard may be based on kernels of facts

I also noticed that the board members asked no questions of the speakers or the attending public. To my memory (not the best) the only questions that any board member asked was Mr. Paul Evans, asking questions of the district employees. How in the world can you understand a problem without asking questions? I certainly hope they ask questions in their private deliberations and in one-on-one conversations.

So if this board meeting was representative, and if there are not other times and places where communication occurs with the public and the school teachers, I completely agree with the teachers that there is very little communication with the school board. We made statements. They went on to other business. One item most complained of, the issue of the print shop’s reduced staffing, was added to the agenda. The board left the room for executive, private, session.

Three hours well spent.

One item discussed late in the meeting was a change in the school board meeting format in an attempt to improve their communication with the public. The idea was to have the board members split up in the meeting hall and hear the statements separately and then give reports on them in the reconvened group.

The teachers had seen this on the agenda before hand, and assumed it was an attempt to shut down communication. It may have turned out something like that, but Mr. Evans proposed to amend that plan to add time for open comment at the end of the meeting, for anyone who was not satisfied with the board member’s representation of their concern.

I think this is a noble effort. Much like buying a washboard and tub is better than sitting with no laundry service at all.

No, I’m not making this up

It was mentioned that a quieter way is being sought for the individuals attending the meeting to express their support for a statement or action in the meeting.  Because we have no applause meter, a show of hands or sign-language applause might be better.

The chairman also suggested that anyone who wants to can email the board with concerns: “you have our email addresses. I think I’ve only received three emails . . .”

Today I went looking for the email addresses on the district website. If they are there, they are somewhere other than the “board” page.  Perhaps the teaches have them.

Do something different

So, now that you have endured reading this far, here are my recommendations to the board for commencing REAL communication.  I think it is important to point out how well qualified I am to give this advice: I have been to exactly one school board meeting.

1. Hear grievances in private so that dirty laundry has someplace to go other than the public board meeting.

a. Does the district have a grievance policy for employees to go above their immediate boss’s head to the next level manager? Do the employees know about it? Are they willing to use it?

b. Since at the top of the district, the Superintendent reports to the Board, does the board make themselves available, individually as well as in formal, private board meetings, to hear the concerns of employees?

c. The public meetings have an explicit rule that criticism of individuals is not allowed. This is a good, healthy, appropriate rule. But in private meetings specifics should be encouraged.

d. This kind of private meeting could be regularly scheduled or by appointment. At a minimum it should be held before deliberations begin on whether to extend the superintendant’s contract. Yes, even when everyone is happy.

e. No one other than the board members and the parties concerned should be present in that meeting. Obviously not the superintendent.

2. Ask and answer questions.

a. There must be a forum in which the public can ask questions of the board.

b. Refusing to respond to questions is a bad PR move. I know you’re busy, but big businesses typically do this once a quarter.

c. What is it that prevents you from asking questions of the speakers? Would you feel listened to if you make a grand statement and all you get is a polite, “Thank you . . . Next!”?

3. Post board members’ contact information on the district website.

a. Actually, in addition to names, phones, and email addresses, I’d like to see what zone you are elected in and how long you have been serving.

b. A picture and a bio would be very lovely, but probably overkill.

4. Continue this public board meeting as is. It serves essential purposes

a. It works well for citizens to make their concerns known

b. Everyone gets to view the workings of the public board.

c. It is the place to debate policy, strategy and direction.

d. If it is serving also as a place for employees to air complaints about management, it is only because the superintendent and the board are failing in their management.

5. Put the district superintendant at a separate table.

a. In public meetings, the district superintendant and employees should NOT sit at the same tables as the board.

b. This will be a visual cue to the truth that the board is separate from the district management, and provides concrete oversight.

But ya gotta mean it

If these kinds of practices are put in place for show, they will fail. Cloudy people will continue to show up and rain on your public board meetings. But if you listen and act in response to the concerns about management, people will know you are for real. Doing the right thing – even when it may be different than what the complainant hopes for – goes a long way.

In the case of Central School District, when behaviors of the superintendent change for the better, then you will begin to earn the trust your position deserves.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A break from humor to address major issues at the Central School District

An Open Letter to the Central School Board:

Several years ago when the bond measure was voted on in this school district, it passed with 54%. This is democracy. Majority rules, and those who opposed paying additional taxes for this measure will dutifully pay for this bond right alongside those who supported it.

54% is a slim margin, and this was BEFORE the recession started. If the election were held one year later, it is unlikely that the measure would have passed.

These are tough times. We have entrusted you, the school board, with our children AND our money – the most sacred things we have. I do not believe you have lived up to that trust.

At the open house of the new Central High School building the other day, Mr. Hunter said that the project was completed “under budget”. This struck me as odd.

It is odd to call this under budget, because the new computer lab has no computers.

It is odd because in the beautiful auditorium, there is a giant alcove backstage for storing a concert shell. This shell doesn’t exist. Its ceiling panels are there, but the concert towers aren’t there and the rumor is they weren’t in the contract that was given to the theatrical rigging company.

It’s odd to call this project under budget when it is using money from other sources than the original bond. $300K has been allocated in the 2010 general fund budget to do resurface the track and buy the property the vision clinic was on. These items were in the scope of the original bond, and should have been paid for without affecting this year’s budget in an amount that could have paid for FOUR teachers.

And finally, it’s odd to call this project under budget given that an additional loan of $500K has been taken to upgrade HVAC systems in the existing schools. This also was part of the scope of the original project.

A local blog, the Central Advocate, states:

Given the savings realized by building during an economic slump (estimated to be several million dollars), the district should have had plenty of money to complete all of the elements promised in the bond. Instead, they have shifted some of those costs into this year's operating budget. This does not strike me as good bond management. Yet the bond manager has been rehired for next year with a new job title and a 12.5% raise. And we are laying off teachers.
And now we come to Mr. Maloney.

Mike Maloney has been the bond manager during this project expanding the high school. He has been rehired and given a twelve percent raise, to administer the half-million dollar loan for HVAC upgrades. His total compensation over two years will amount to two thirds the value of the loan he is administering, and could have been used to hire two teachers. This is an unconscionable waste of money in the economic downturn we are experiencing. Capable people in the community could be called upon to do the work which may average out to only a couple of hours per week on a part-time or volunteer basis. But we are paying an annual salary of over $110 thousand. All for a project that was in the scope of the original bond.

What about Mr. Maloney’s performance administering this bond gives the idea that spending over 300K more dollars for his services over the next two years will bring $300K worth of value to our students, our classrooms, and our taxpayers?

And before his recent work here at Central, what about his performance in prior positions made him the obvious choice to administer this bond?

With the assistance of Google and the World Wide Web, I was able to find, in about one hour’s time, some information on Mike Maloney which would not only discourage me from hiring him, but would make me question the judgment – or honesty – of any person who did.

In Education Week, January 11, 2005, it states facilities and transportation associate superintendent Michael C. Maloney, was indicted for alleged mishandling of at least $627,000 in school construction and consulting contracts. (Fee Required)

This was in Houston Texas.

At this same time, he was charged and convicted of a misdemeanor crime of lying on a government document: His Resume. He claimed baccalaureate and masters degrees from a university that doesn’t exist. According to the blog “Education Wonks”: “Maloney only got caught when his subordinates became concerned at his obvious lack of expertise in supervising the letting of contracts.”

The Mail Tribune of Southern Oregon, reported in 2007 that Mike Maloney was hired and fired from a position there. He was fired specifically because he was not forthcoming about his previous conviction. But they also had concerns with his construction management experience. It says:

A month after Maloney first met with the committee in April 2005 and began touring schools to help identify needs for repairs and construction, former Medford district facilities manager Sam Digati did an Internet search under Maloney's name and found out about the conviction.

[They were ] suspicious of Maloney because he asked questions that indicated he knew less about construction than he had claimed.
Right there at our fingertips was the background of this man who made an impression in two different districts that 1) he had an insufficient knowledge of construction and supervising of contracts, 2) he had a criminal conviction for misrepresenting himself, and 3) he was implicated in the mishandling of public money.

It appears his next stop was here, in wonderful, friendly, trusting, Central school district. In Southern Oregon they got suspicious within a month! But here we put him in charge of a 37 million dollar bond over two years, with a disappointing result that should have been predicted by Mr. Hunter and you on the School Board. More money was spent than the voters specifically approved for the project – some of it coming from the general fund which could have paid for teachers - and some components listed in the “2008 Bond Scope of Work” have not been delivered. In a time when budgets are tight everywhere, especially in Oregon, it seems we followed the approach, “Do Less With More”.

And the superintendant can state publicly that it was finished under budget? Something is definitely wrong here.

As taxpayers and parents, we expect you, the Board, to carefully oversee the wise use of our money and the operation of our district to the benefit of our students and our community.

I call on this school board to have an outside, independent audit of ALL bond expenditures, immediately. Account for EVERY penny and be prepared to justify EVERY expense.

Trust is a good thing, but it has to be earned.


At the meeting last night, Kathy Zehner said that there is some misinformation out there that they will work to correct.  I have been pondering this post and my shorter statements at the board meeting, and I feel to correct one thing.  Maloney's compensation may not be two thirds of the project he will be administering.  I assumed that the $500K HVAC project was his only responsibility, when in fact I have no knowlege what his responsibilities will be.  Therefore, while I am still critical that he was hired, and that he got a raise in tough economic times, I do not have enough information to comment on the ratio of his compensation to the value of the projects he is administering.