Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ledger Independent Offers a Lesson All School Districts Should Hear

Calls for the Superintendent's Resignation, Open Communications

This from the Ledger Independent:

Taking lessons from hungry monkeys

Question: How did good, honest school board members allow the kind of wasteful spending, excessive perks and breakdown of the expense approval process reported by the Kentucky Auditor’s Office this week?

There’s a story I was told many years ago about an experiment in which hungry monkeys were placed into a cage. A large bunch of bananas was hung above a pyramid of boxes in one corner of the cage.
But every time the monkeys raced up the boxes to retrieve the bananas, they were sprayed with ice water. Now, there is nothing in the world a monkey hates more than an ice water bath. Soon, the monkeys – in spite of their hunger – ignored the bananas.

At some point, a new monkey was added to the cage and his hunger drove him toward the bananas. But the other monkeys – realizing they were all in for a blast of cold water -- beat the newcomer senseless. He quickly learned a lesson, and in spite of the fact he had never been sprayed with water, he ignored the bananas.

Over time, the monkeys in the cage were replaced one-by-one. Each new monkey learned that an attempt to get to the bananas would result in a beating from his new cage mates. In time, there was not a single monkey in the cage who had been sprayed with water, and therefore not a single monkey knew why it was that the bananas were off limits. But the monkeys remained hungry and the bananas remained untouched.
Any time we join a group – whether socially, at work or in our community, we quickly seek out and learn the rules of the group. We assume that experienced members understand how the group functions, and we follow their example.

We depend on leaders to guide us in how to act – and not act – in order for the group to function properly. We may test the old ways of doing things, but we are often more interested in continuing those ways – especially when the group is highly regarded and effective.

One-by-one, new school board members have joined a rather exclusive group of citizens, trusted not just with tax money, but with our children and their education. The system functioned well. The leadership received high praise on a state and even a national level.

The perks were good. Trips to interesting cities. Overnights in fine hotels. Dinners at wonderful restaurants…

And it all seemed to be fitting for elected members of a board of education who operated a school district with clean audits, high test scores and a $4 million rainy day fund in the bank.

When expenditures were presented to the board for approval, they were dealt with in aggregate. No reason to question individual expense items, this is – after all – an award winning institution run by individuals with vast experience and impeccable credentials.

Got a question or a complaint? See the superintendent or one of his assistants, and they will deal with it.

Launch an initiative to control information and give it an impressive name like “One Clear Voice.” Don’t allow anyone inside the system to speak without approval from the Central Office. In fact, don’t allow anyone to speak at all.

And slowly, over time, fill the board with members who don’t know why the system operates the way it does; they simply accept it.

The time has come for change at the Mason County School System. Board members can either step up and demand that change, or they will be replaced, not because we say so, but because this community will not allow a great school system to operate like a Third World country.

Sitting board members must speak out immediately. They must – without reservation – endorse the findings of the Kentucky State Auditor, and they must demand resignations of any administrator involved in the mess uncovered in the auditor’s report.

Board members must encourage and seek out direct feedback from their principals, their teachers, their staff; not feedback that is filtered through administrators, but one-on-one truth telling without fear of reprisal.

Board members must scrutinize financial reports, ask for comparisons to other districts and challenge administrators when numbers don’t add up.

We have often said that service on the local school board is the most thankless job in politics. But it can also be one of the most rewarding when children are the focus.

The Mason County School System is one of the best in the state, and it is past time board members and administrators live up to the high standards they have set for their students, teachers and staff.


Anonymous said...

I suspect that the audit only hit the high points and there was probably less detectable trickle down effect to lower level players.

This might sound crazy but if you can't demonstrate the $200,000 over a four year period did not significantly inhibit the district's students' success then maybe, just maybe, folks who benefit from a few perks might actually perform better and as a result be more effective.

I realize this is not a popular view but lets face it, in the private sector successful leaders get rewarded in a variety of very tangible ways at significantly higher levels. Conversely, in education leaders are suppose to be satisfied with the intrinsic pride of leading a district or school whose students are performing well or improving so they can retire one day and for their remaining 20 or 30 years of existanbce receive 48% of their salary. You don't get anything for moving your school forward academically except for the additional challenge of matching or surpasing the most recent measurement of success. Not only do you not individually benefit from your success in a tangible sense but if you fall back you are usually punished with more work and greater scrutiny.

I am not saying this is necessarily why this occurs but we shouldn't be suprised when folks who have successfully done their job for multiple years would hope or maybe even justify some sort of benefit from that work. Most educators in this state haven't received pay raises or even cola for half a decade during which more work and responsibilities have been placed upon them with the only benefit being some recognition in a local newspaper once a year. The same paper will lambast you mercilessly as an uncaring, lazy, indifferent community member if you don't reach your goal that year.

So the guy used some gas from the bus lot, so what? You don't think educators across this state dont' take advantage of school resources (paper, computers, paid planning time,planning time, overnight PD trips) for their personal use? Some board members or front office folks go to represent the school don't eat at McDonalds value meals and stay four to a room in Motel 6 and you want to demonize them as spendthrifts?

To put it in perspective, when you figure in salary and benefits, it would have barely covered a first year teacher on the payroll each year. I seriously doubt any child's curricular or extra-curricular opportunities were impacted in anyway by this misuse of funds. I am betting that these folks work may have very well resulted in funded grant applications which brought in resources well beyound this audited amount.

I know, I know.. integrity, state regulations, responsibility, public trust, etc. But in the big picture of things you are talking about 12 people over 4 years and $200,000. That's about $4000 a year, per head if you average it out. At the same time you have state universities which demand 50% of grant funds as "indirect" payments to the institution and a Commissioner who takes trips on the dime of private vendors with state contracts to Asia and South America (bastions of cutting edge instruction)on "educational exchange trips"?

Come on, they aren't doing anything worse than the universities that they paid to educate them or the man who leads them.

Richard Day said...

Richie? Is that you?

Anonymous said...

Very good Dr. Day!

Like I said, I know it sounds crazy but I am sure we can agree that accurate or not, this is often the sort of internally created justification which individuals use when they begin down the path of malfeasance - i.e. "I deserve this" or "they owe me".

Your barb does make one wonder how these desperados couldn't have muster some laptops, shotguns, dog chauffers, backyard basketball courts, deer hunting on the roll, etc. Heck, all they got was some free gas, few free steaks dinners and some fancy hotel rooms - I could get some of that on my credit card rewards program.

If you want to give those auditors a real challenge, let them try to explain how our KPREP school scores are calculated and what the basis for these formula are. I think in the long run we will find that our Commissioner is the one who has taken us for a much bigger ride than these small potatoes.

Anonymous said...

From what I hear, out of town girlfriends can be expensive, even when they are on the school payroll.

From the looks of Mason Countians who are submitting write-in candidates for school board positions, they must agree.