Why we Need an Independent Inspector General for the Montgomery County School System — Joan Fidler, President, Montgomery County Taxpayers League (Dec. 2, 2014)
The Montgomery County School system has an annual budget of $2.3 billion, student enrollment of 154,176 and a staff of 21,580. It is an organization that rivals many counties in the nation not only in the size of its budget but in the number of people it employs. Yet, despite that, it lacks an independent authority within the organization that has oversight over waste, fraud, abuse and just good management, in general. One wonders why. It does have an audit staff that reports to its Chief Financial Officer but not directly to the Board of Education.
Fairfax County Public Schools with an annual budget of $2.5 billion, student enrollment of 186,785, and a staff of 23,447 recently appointed an Audit Manager located within the Office of Internal Audit but reporting directly to the Board of Education. The Audit Manager is responsible for analyzing school operations and efficiency “through independent and objective analyses and evaluations.”
The 9 members of Montgomery County’s Board of Education work part time and have administrative/secretarial staff but none with financial or audit expertise. Yet the Board has oversight of a large school system with an enormous budget that must rely on the very bureaucrats that run the system to provide it with analyses. So the Board is totally dependent on the school system staff who must have the time, the energy and the motivation to respond to Board requests.
True, none of the school systems in Maryland has an inspector general. But we are the largest school system, by far, in the state of Maryland. And our school system accounts for close to 50 percent of the county’s budget. Furthermore, as education is a state function, our county council is left with the responsibility of writing a large check every year but with little control over how it is spent. The county government has an inspector general; the school system does not.
The establishment of an Inspector General function in the office of the Board of Education will provide the Board with the resources to decide for itself the programs and functions that need an objective, independent review or audit. Furthermore it will require that school system staff comply with requests for information. The Board can have the Inspector General conduct program reviews, looking at goals, funding and outcomes. It can establish a Hotline and whistle blower protection – both of which were highlighted as deficiencies by the Maryland State Audit of 2009. We propose that the Inspector General not be situated in the Office of Chief Financial Officer reporting to the MCPS bureaucracy but be established as an independent body reporting directly to the Board of Education.
The recent investigation by the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County that brought to light abuses by the Board of credit card usage might very easily have been discovered by an Inspector General. Why was it not discovered by the MCPS audit staff? Why did it require an outside parents’ group to delve into the issue? Are there instances of waste, fraud and abuse that occur in the school system that continue to lie dormant? Is there an Anonymous Tipline to which school staff and the public can send complaints? Could there be school staff who are afraid of retaliation should they bring to the school authorities instances of waste, fraud and abuse? Why not?
If you look around, you will find that the Philadelphia School District, the Chicago Board of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, all have inspectors general. So do many other large school jurisdictions such as ours.
Let’s look at Philadelphia. It has an annual budget of $2.6 billion, school enrollment of 131,362 and a staff of 16,827. Its Office of Inspector General “investigates anonymous tips and complaints from employees from the school district as well as from the general public. In addition to investigations, it conducts inspections, special reviews and audits “with the purpose of ensuring that School District of Philadelphia operations and activities are as effective, efficient, and economical as possible”.
For the much larger Chicago Board of Education, with an annual budget of $5.1 billion, student enrollment of 400,000 and a staff of 39,266, the mission of the Office of the Inspector General is to “ensure integrity in the operations of the Chicago Public Schools by conducting meaningful, accurate, and thorough investigations into allegations of waste, fraud and financial mismanagement. The OIG also reviews Board’s systems, practices and procedures to determine their efficacy in preventing waste, fraud and financial mismanagement”.
And the even larger LA Unified School District (LAUSD), with an annual operating budget of $7.27 billion, student enrollment of 644,000 and a staff of 60,139, has an Inspector General whose responsibility it is “to promote a culture of accountability, transparency, collaboration and integrity through the performance of audit and investigative services designed to drive continuous improvement, support effective decision making and detect and deter waste, fraud and abuse. Our vision is to be a proactive agency striving for excellence and continuous positive change in the management and programs of the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
The LAUSD is a good example of the results that are possible – and quantifiable – with the establishment of an Office of Inspector General. Between FY 2000 and 2012, the IG of the LAUSD made recommendations or took actions that led to more efficient use of $440 million in funds that were put to better use. The IG questioned costs related to contracts, grants and cooperative agreements totaling $129 million. In that same period, the IG took actions that resulted in the restitution of $16 million in funds that were obtained through fraudulent means.
Imagine an Inspector General for our Montgomery County Public Schools being able to do likewise. Imagine an Inspector General conducting performance and management audits focusing on the efficiency and effectiveness of programs.
It would be a brave, new world, indeed.