Thursday, December 09, 2010

Audit and Finance Committee Meeting on Tuesday (Part 1)

Here's my new recommendation; forget the Board meetings. Watch them on tv if you must. Everything is already decided and nothing you say really makes a difference. The exception to that is if your message is directed to the wider audience and the Superintendent and School Board are just spectators.

Go to the Work Sessions and the Committee meetings. That's where best information and action can be found.

The Audit and Finance Committee meeting was no exception. Sherry Carr is the Chair of this committee but the meeting started while she was involved in a discussion elsewhere with Noel Treat. Peter Maier and Michael DeBell, the other members, were present and started the meeting.

They started with a Financial update from Kathie Technow who is the Accounting Manager. She was going to answer some questions that Sherry had from a previous meeting. Peter said there was a lot of info on enrollment data that would need more breakouts to use for budgeting. A lot of murmuring from staff but Michael said that staff needed to give them a date when they could expect the analysis. (You go, Michael.) Don Kennedy said there would be "financial outcomes" from higher enrollment.

Then started some uncomfortable questioning as Ms. Technow went through the monthly financial report for October.

(I will see if I can find this online as the enrollment info on page 2 was quite interesting. For example, when they adopted the budget for 2010-2011, they perceived they would be losing 9th graders. They had 3,901 9th graders in 2009-10 but their budgeted figure for 2010-2011 was 3,168. Their projections now for 2010-2011 are 3,776. I have no idea why they thought they would lose close to 700 students.)

Frankly, I need a budget person to walk me through reading one of these. I believe I understand most of it (but need confirmation on that) but some of it is a mystery but I think it may be hard for anyone not in SPS to understand.

For example. We are still getting revenue from BEX II and BTA II (plus all the money from BEX III which was a bond so they got all the money upfront rather than from a levy per BEX II and BTA II). What was startling is that BEX III is being used to pay on the Debt Service Fund. So what is that Fund paying off? It's paying off the bonds we bought for the John Stanford headquarters ($37.M).

So as we have said before, once the district gets the money, they can use it for anything (as long as it's either capital or operations, depending on the levy). BEX III money that you might think could be going to say, renovating or repairing something, nah, it's for the albatross around our necks that is the Stanford Headquarters. And we bought that thing because consolidation was going to "save" us money much like closing schools saved us money. Please remember this the next time they tell you "it's for the kids".

Michael tried to question Kathie on this but she's the master of the one sentence answer.

Michael also said that the high school ASBs are still hurting because of the lost of vending machine revenue. To explain, when the district created a no-junk food policy, they took out the vending machines with soda. Now they only sell milk or juice. Those machines brought in money that the student groups used to help fund activities. And, like we see with a lot of things, the better-off schools, their students could do other fundraising events but less well-off schools struggled. Michael said he was channeling his ASB officer daughter at Ballard who reminds him of this frequently. He said that the soda companies have new products that might be okay under the policy. Can this be checked? My advice is for high school PTAs to help the kids do the research themselves, create a proposal and give it to the district.

Michael asked about whether the district would be doing a bond or levy for BEX IV because this could influence the list and how much they might ask for from voters. He said he wanted an analysis of assumptions and strategies from BEX III that could be useful in planning for BEX IV.

There was to be a presentation of the Ethics Program by Noel Treat but he and Sherry hadn't come in so they moved on.

Ronic Liro gave the Audit Response Team update. Unfortunately there weren't enough copies. I saw it briefly which was long enough to see that much of the training with staff has not happened and seems to be "pending". (Dorothy has a copy so she can fill us in.)

He said they need money to respond to the audit. (I know, kind of sad-funny. ) He said they wanted to develop a process to handle the annual SAO audit. This wouldn't be so important if they did what they are supposed to do in handling public funds.

He said about 75% of the issues were logged to be "resolved and addressed". He said there was an update on the web as well as a high level summary. It appears many items are completed but many are not. Michael mentioned having to wait for Sherry to determine how many more A&F meetings would be continued to be broken in two to keep track of the audit response. He asked that when updates are made, that the Board be notified.

The on-site state auditor who was at the meeting, Tony Martinez, responded to Michael's question about when a presentation of the response could be made and Mr. Martinez said that was for management to decide.

There was a brief bit of discussion between Peter and Michael over the need to keep things daylighted and timely awareness from staff of "emergent issues". Michael said if there is a consequence that will be daylighted, it should be reported to the Board. Dead silence.

Then it got more interesting as Michael said the district needs to enhance our processes. Don Kennedy explained that it seemed that somewhere around 2000, there seemed to be a drop-off in procedures. Michael said it seemed there was a "systemic abandonment of maintaining our procedures". The upshot seemed to be that in the year 2000 there were a number of initiatives going on and process and procedure fell by the wayside. For whatever reason, it never got back on track. (That's probably why the Superintendent has said the lack of systems was the thing that most surprised her when she got here.)

Michael said it made him wonder about the district's institutional memory and losing staff who knew procedures. He said the district has to capture that information rather than having it in someone's mind. He asked if procedures were documented and the answer was yes, but in some areas it is informal and it "depends on who you ask".

Michael stated that procedures are part of internal controls and it sounds like there's real work to be done.

Ronic stated that the district went to online documents in 2001 and all the hard copy information may not have gotten online.

Michael asked if there was an exemplary department that other departments could look to. Don Kennedy said no. He also said there was inadequate training in 2000/2001 using different systems that no longer exist. He said the capital program is trying to do better.

So I pause here to take in the enormity of what was said. It seems that many departments are run off the cuff with little real training or oversight. There is no one good department to look to for best practices. It almost seems like district management can't quite get a grip on what people know or don't know.

Moving on, to Performance Audit on Capital Management. Remember that capital audit I've been talking about? This is it. Finally, late January or early February is the release date. Now with Performance Audits (and this is one), the district gets a draft and gets to answer back. They got their first look in the summer of 2008. Now the state is about ready to release the final report and what Don Kennedy (or Duggan, my notes are off here)said is "We having been working frantically to respond and to technically validate it." Now what is interesting is that the public can come to what I believe is an exit conference (which is the district's final response before the audit comes out). Then, there is also a public hearing 30 days after the audit comes out. (I didn't know but they put the last public hearing at the end of an Audit and Finance Committee meeting. I'm sure many people knew that.)

So there was discussion over the Operations Committee as well as members of the BEX Oversight Committee coming to the exit conference.

Again, I believe this will be quite serious and the district will have yet more explaining to do.

Stopping here because this is midway in my notes.

10 comments:

StepJ said...

Totally with you on paragraph one Melissa.

Completely true. Only worth it to attend in person if a.) You want to at least stare them down as they duck their heads when making their votes, or b.) You are giving a group a chance to vent - as in you have media coverage and a big group turn-out. The outcome won't change but perhaps a mere parent will at least be heard by the media if not by the Board or the District.

The forecasted 9th grade attendance is totally false s*i%.

The Board and District were all -- we can't create a reasonable plan to transition from the old plan to the new - as in create reasonable boundaries and not split families in the process --because of their stated reason of accommodating the multitudes returning from private school. If you are anticipating multitudes it would stand to reason enrollment would increase.

So now they want to say that having the result desired -- having kids returning from private was not anticipated? Total crock.

With genuine public engagement (listening) all could have been planned for and voila a MUCH smoother transition to the NSAP.

As it is status quo -- trying to create the US vs. THEM fight among parents so all the other crapitude is ignored.

Dang - how do these people sleep at night?

StepJ said...

Also, in my previous life... we used to whiteboard processes in less than a day to document them and revise them for new incoming technology (such as a new payroll system.)

Again, not an overly expensive or extraordinary time consuming process.

Provided you have the buy in from upper management that is...

Anonymous said...

Melissa, Dorothy, and others,

Thank you so much for attending these meetings. What a commitment to our kids! You are right, these meetings are the core decision-making process. And if there is no public attending, that is a problem.

As an aside, I also have to say that in this post I appreciate the style you use: very journalistic, straightforward, and the facts speak for themselves. Thank you for this investigative journalism that is professional and civil and factual.

Appreciation Moment

Charlie Mas said...

I've been seeing the Board try - without much effectiveness - to actually do some oversight.

Their effectiveness has been diminished first by Directors who oppose Board oversight. Some of them don't think it is appropriate for the Board to do this sort of work. Regard Director Martin-Morris' statement before the vote on the annual approval of schools in which he said that the Board should not question the veracity of staff's statements.

Their effectiveness has also been diminished by staff's resistance to Board oversight. The staff stonewall, and obfuscate, delay, and neglect. A Board director asks a question but doesn't get an answer or gets a self-contradictory answer or gets an incomplete answer or gets an answer so nuanced and riddled with provisos and contingencies that it is meaningless.

The staff's practice of speaking in twisted language - or very briefly or not at all - is an intentional technique designed to shake off Board oversight.

These wrestling matches happen in Committee meetings much more than they happen in regular legislative meetings of the Board. It is weird to see a Board member press forward - tactfully! - to get an answer, to see the staff person bob and weave, and to see another Board member run interference for the staff to shield them from the question.

In committee meetings, where there is no verbatim record, you can often see staff tell the Board members things that simply are not true. It's jaw-dropping. The Board members generally lack the detailed knowledge needed to challenge the statements. Or the staff will say something that directly contradicts something they either just said or something they said at the previous meeting. Again, it is absolutely astonishing. Mostly for its boldness.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Appreciation, thanks for the kind words. I do want to state that I do try to be as much a reporter as possible. That's why these reports tend to be long. If I summarized, I might editorialize AND you miss hearing the actual words used. I think that is important.

But yes, obviously, I have my opinions and they do get into these reports but it's usually because I'm dumbfounded.

As Charlie says, the minutes of these meetings rarely reflect the total of what was said (or not said).

Seattle Parent said...

What about making audio-recordings of all the committee meetings and posting them online?

Some Board members & district officials were asked about doing this (using the example that the WA State Board of Ed always makes their audio recordings from all meetings available), but of course the district was not excited about that request.

Accountability starts somewhere, why not at these these meetings also, especially as it seems that whatever is recommended in these meetings is what is accepted and passed at the actual Board meetings?

Jan said...

Charlie: isn't the answer to at least PART of the staff resistance for maybe, say, the Board President to sit down with MGJ and just lay it out -- that Board (and public) perception is that the staff (in the best case) sometimes comes unprepared to answer obvious questions -- the kind they should be able to predict and prepare for -- and in the worst case, they give every appearance of trying to avoid candid, thoughtful, and factual responses, and that she -- the head of all staff -- needs to order it to stop. Immediately. Or there will be some "accountability" going on?

WV says -- staff needs to step up the content and accuracy of their communications with the board, or risk being "blysted."

Sarah said...

"The staff's practice of speaking in twisted language - or very briefly or not at all - is an intentional technique designed to shake off Board oversight."

Watched MGJ's apology on tv. Only MGJ could make the 17% figure appear to move the district forward. ;)

Charlie Mas said...

Man! I can't wait for Part 2 when Director Carr returns and Mr. Treat describes the Ethics Program.

The Real Arnold said...

Where is Part 2 of Tuesday's meeting?