NOT THEIR MONEY 


News that public school districts are facing cuts and gaps in funding has become commonplace. One way to deal with the issue is to simply give schools more money. Another is to scrutinize exactly how districts spend the dollars they get. The former isn't likely in the new reality of governmental budget cuts brought on by tax cuts; the latter shows that some districts are a lot better than others in policing their finances.

The Osceola County School District, which has struggled to scrape together funding for new schools to relieve overcrowding and faced a $244 million deficit over the next five years until it borrowed $170 million, seems to have a problem when it comes to tracking its dollars. Accountability by the school board isn't a priority; only a couple of the school board's members routinely inquire about questionable expenditures and appropriations, such as the board's decision a month ago to write off $87,000 worth of lost and stolen laptops.

'They're not held accountable,' says school board member Jay Wheeler, considered something of a maverick on the board for his candid questions and constant criticism of superintendent Blaine Muse's leadership. 'If I work for a company, I sign a document that I will pay for the computer if I lose it. They have a very cavalier attitude about things; they're very complacent. They don't care about accountability from a fiscal perspective.'

Bill Collins, assistant superintendent for business and fiscal services, says 'any changes to be implemented would need to be cost-effective, where the anticipated reduction in the value of items lost would be more than the anticipated cost of the change.'

In other words, it's not cost-effective to hold staff members accountable and make sure they don't lose or steal district property.

School board chairman Tom Greer, who notes that officials can't follow teachers around all the time, says there must be a better way to monitor situations such as these. He's not sure what that would be, however.

'We rely on trust. Do you want someone in the office watching computers?' Greer asks.

Even that wouldn't solve Osceola's problems. In 2003, Celebration School officials spent $96,000 through an internal fund to stage a school musical at the upscale Gaylord Palms Resort. After an investigation, spending on high-school plays was capped at $15,000. Renting space at the Gaylord Palms alone cost more than $15,000, though school officials later admitted they hadn't even priced the facility before booking it. After months of negotiating, district officials eventually got $39,000 of the debt forgiven.

In November 2006, the district agreed to pay $2 million — $200,000 more than the appraised value — for land in St. Cloud for a planned school. Then there was the time last summer when the district unexpectedly mailed Wheeler a $318,000 check to sign for one of the district's charter operators.

'They didn't say anything. It just magically appeared at my doorstep,' Wheeler notes.

Just last month the district was docked $512,000 in state funding after a state audit showed poor record-keeping, including lost time cards for career education students who were paid for outside, on-the-job training, children left in ESOL even after it was determined they spoke fluent English, and employing dozens of teachers who had failed to meet state certification requirements.

This comes at a time when the district is facing an immediate cut in tax revenues; the exact amount won't be known until next week, when the state is expected to lower projected sales tax revenues. Osceola County has primarily used that money as a bondable source of capital revenue. Property tax revenues are expected to drop by $24 million during the 2008-2009 school year if property tax reforms are approved by the Legislature in January.

Osceola School District Superintendent Blaine Muse says he's heard the rhetoric for years. 'I continually get hit with the same things, and we have rectified those things,' Muse says.

He put a cap on spending after the dust-up over the play, authorized additional individuals to be able to sign checks so they would no longer be mailed, and says the purchasing department is currently looking at ways to keep track of things, like missing computers. (He also says the value of the missing computers should have been depreciated to reflect the district's actual losses.)

Wheeler isn't buying it.

'It's your typical spin,' he laughs. 'Blaine Muse does not run a tight ship. I'm sure it's not his fault that (FCAT) scores went down either. The state was probably conspiring against him.

'It's an arcane system,' he adds. 'It's absurd. Osceola schools would loathe anything that would bring accountability. They just want to bury their heads in the sand.'

dsheffield@orlandoweekly.com

More by Deanna Sheffield

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