Our view: Is this any way to run a school district?

February 13, 2013 10:35:32 AM



As meetings go, Monday's meeting of the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees was as eventful as you will likely see. In fact, there was so much ground to cover, the meeting lasted almost four hours.  


And is often the case with this board, the meeting somehow raised more questions than answers. 


For example, how is it that two years after vacating Lee Middle School, the board still doesn't know if it is going to lease, develop or sell the property?  


"We're still trying to figure out what's best for the district," board president Tommy Prude said Monday night. Good. Figure it out. Please, take your time, though. No need to hurry, right? Just keep on spending taxpayer money maintaining the vacant property. There's plenty of tax money available, you know. Oh, and while we are on the subject, if the board doesn't know what it wants to do with the property, why is it that "For Sale" signs have been posted on the property for well over a year? The board's conduct on this matter invites scrutiny.  


Or how about this one: Why did Dr. Martha Liddell say an email she had sent to Dispatch publisher Birney Imes came from her "personal email," when it is clear from an analysis of the header information in the email that it was sent from her school district account and through district servers?  


Then, there is the matter of how the district accounts for travel expenses. For anyone who has ever run a business, the district's way of accounting for travel is a real head-scratcher. 


The matter surfaced during a review of the district's monthly finances. Kenneth Hughes, the district's chief financial officer, reported that there is a balance of $157,196 in federal grant money to be used for professional development. So far this year, the district has spent $40,000 from that grant fund, Liddell said. When board members pressed Liddell for an account of how that travel money was spent -- who used the money, the destinations, purpose of the trips and the costs of those trips -- Liddell said that information couldn't be provided. Hughes said the district lacked the software necessary to provide such details. 


Oh, really? 


Who, aside from the Columbus Municipal School District, would dare operate this way? 


It is not a complicated accounting practice we are talking about here. Generally, when an employee travels, he is required to fill out a form upon his return that lists all the relevant information: name of the person traveling, purpose of the trip, destination and an itemized breakdown of the expenses, supported by receipts. Businesses do this for two reasons. First, it builds in accountability. Second, it is important to have that documentation for tax purposes in the event of an audit. 


By contrast, the Columbus Municipal School District's accounting philosophy appears to be, "Just take our word for it." 


But taxpayers are in no mood for such foolishness. 


There is no reason at all why an entity funded by taxpayers should be held to such a ridiculously low standard of accountability.  


On the contrary, every nickel the district spends should include a detailed record of how that money was spent. That record should be readily available to board members and the general public. 


We are not inclined to simply "take their word for it." 


And that leads to a final question: 


Is there any reason we should?