Still Relevant, After All These Years

Deja Vu All Over Again ... Follow the Money

By Carol A.O. Wolf
(Originally Posted 4/13/12)
I hope that when Robert Bobb's consulting group delivers their final report to the members of Mayor Dwight C. Jones' Advisory Task Force on the Richmond Public Schools' (RPS) budget, that the solutions presented will be more substantive than simply grabbing the low-hanging fruit of privatizing transportation, security and custodial services and eliminating teachers and teacher aides.  

If the suggestions aren't, then the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce Foundation will have wasted (another) $35,000 on yet (another) study/report that the city and school administrators will stick on a shelf to gather dust somewhere within the bowels of City Hall.  

Will Bobb's group, the task force and/or Mayor Jones find the backbone and brains to address the extraordinary fees paid to Harrell Chambliss law firm and to other cronies who continue to get contracts even though shoddy work is delivered?  Will they find the courage to tackle the long-troubled procurement departments of both the city and RPS?  Will they allow City Auditor Umesh Dalal unfettered access to do a complete audit starting with RPS procurement?  

If Dalal's office lacks manpower, will Richmond's corporate big dogs loan some auditors to the city so we can (at last) tackle both procurement departments?  To read what John Butcher has to say about wasted money and the incompetent RPS procurement department, click herehere and here.

Shortly after I was first elected to the City of Richmond School Board, I received some excellent and nearly identical instruction from a noteworthy triumvirate of legal advisors that included two previous members of that board -- the Honorable Leroy R. Hassell, the former Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court who died in 2011, David P. Baugh, a nationally and internationally known criminal defense attorney and the late, great Oliver W. Hill, Sr., a North-side neighbor, mentor and noted civil rights attorney who helped bring a a multitude of legal challenges to segregation laws, including the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education case. Mr. Hill died Aug. 7, 2007 at age 100.

If I wanted to be most effective and avoid stumbling over ignorance of things past, they each urged me to   take the time to read the board minutes and study the approved budgets for the immediate past five years.  The problem with school board members is that they come and go, they said, whereas entrenched administrators remain and are incredibly adept at playing board members off of one another by instigating rivalries, fomenting dissension and just plain stone-walling.

By patiently studying the past minutes and budgets -- and doing independent research -- I was able to acquire an institutional knowledge that surpassed that of my colleagues and was, at times, more than a tad bit disconcerting (and embarrassing) to administrators.  By taking the time to do as Hassell, Baugh and Hill suggested, I discovered, for example, that Richmond Public Schools was not EVEN filing for Medicare/Medicaid claims for our students with special needs or for Title IV-E social services monies.

When the former chairman of our board, Larry Olanrewaju, rebuked me for broaching the topic in public and warned that he was not willing to spend $3 to collect $1, I found a GAO report that showed that the state of Maryland was filing for Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements and receiving back an average of $800-plus per special needs child, whereas the Commonwealth of Virginia was haphazardly filing and receiving back a mere $5 (five) dollars per child.

I refused to be rebuffed and within weeks, RPS began filing for the money and certain people began calling me names behind my back.  Ultimately, the name-calling didn't matter since during my tenure, millions of much-needed additional dollars flowed back into Virginia and to RPS.

Before anyone starts the procurement process to outsource transportation or custodial services, it is critical to know the history of previous efforts to identify problems within these areas and what has happened to reform efforts, lest we remain doomed like Sisyphus to continuously push the boulder of school reform up the mountain only to begin again or to suffer like Tantalus who could see sustenance, but could never quite reach it.  Therefore, in the name of accountability, I ask that everyone who purports to care about the fate of our schools -- or who questions why so many seemingly reasonable and intelligent people can so profoundly disagree, please read the following:

   Before deciding to outsource transportation, consultants and task force members alike need to read the latest audit on that department.  And, before quoting any school board members about how well RPS is doing, news reporters should read that audit and ask what has been done to fix the problems in the transportation department

   Before cutting back on the number of custodians and security guards that RPS employs, read about what happened the last time those staffs were cut ostensibly to save money.  The following is from the minutes of a committee meeting discussion concerning overtime paid out: "A majority of this was your metal detector people that were put on board for additional security. The total at this point was $309,272.95. Those were people that would be overtime and people that were doing the additional services mandated by the Board last year for metal detectors. Mrs. Johns reiterated that this was not necessarily overtime pay for this group of employees; it was the amount paid to date to those employees.  Mrs. Wolf wanted to know what we had budgeted for this. Ms. Bragga said that we had $110,000 budgeted for this specific group of people. Mrs. Wolf stated that we were roughly over-the-line by $200,000. Ms. Bragga agreed. Mrs. Wolf wanted to know what it would be in July. Ms. Bragga said that it would probably be close to $500,000."  

   By July, that number was close to a million dollars and members of our committee learned to listen very, very carefully to administrators who changed their story to claim the money paid out was not for "overtime," but for so-called "temporary workers."

   Before initiating yet another "study" of possible consolidations of departments, read the minutes of the last time this was discussed:  An excerpt: "Discuss steps required to access feasibility and a timetable for the City of Richmond to assume management control of: Plant Services, Security, Nurses/Social Workers, Finance/Budget, Department of Procurement/Purchasing, IT Department, Transportation, Fleet Maintenance, Risk Management, Legal Services, Telecommunications, Internal Audit, and Public Relations.  Mrs. Wolf brought that matter before the Committee for consideration in light of the expenses that we needed to look at and bring forward into the budget. She said that this was [intended as] a discussion. She wanted to hear from members of the Administration: where they saw that cuts could come from, how we could manage this so that the goal would be to find more money to drive into the classroom, to focus all of our efforts on the academic achievement of our children, and creating a working environment where our teachers would be able to nurture our children and be able to show the world what [we] they could do professionally." 

   Mrs. Wolf said that this discussion was in response to the urgency that [it] needed to happen. She wanted the soul [sic] focus to be on educating. Whatever did not directly drive money into the classroom; we needed to find someone else who could do it better. She commented that if we were going to be outsourcing functions anyway, why not hand it over to people who had an expertise in municipal management. 

   The biggest difference between Richmond and Norfolk, in terms of their cost, was the operation side of the house. Whatever cost that we could consolidate and do better, we had a duty to do that. We had a duty to step up and initiate it. If we didn’t initiate some discussion on a Board or Committee level, then the city wondered if we were going to do anything; there was no sense of urgency. This consolidation effort had already been discussed for two years.She stated that our Board was criticized in The Council of Great City Schools’ report for not having a sense of urgency, for not recognizing what we could do [or] what we needed to do.

But, seriously -- if we are ever to have any hope of cleaning up RPS and figuring out where all the money goes, it is critical that a full and complete audit be done, starting with the procurement department.