In our continuing effort to be transparent, Don, Pam and I are making public the letter that is being sent to AdvancED in response to their inquiry. We are also making public our comments about the response.
From: Nancy Jester [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Subject: My comments on the SACS response letter
Thank you for sending your draft response to the SACS letter to me for comment. Here are my thoughts:
You have listed some of the important steps that you and your team have initiated to set DCSD on a path for both academic and fiscal success. I certainly appreciate the efforts you have made to change the trajectory of our district and I am glad you enumerated them for SACS. I often think that some of my colleagues do not acknowledge the dire straits we are navigating. Why they chose to not accept the reality of our difficult fiscal situation and the abysmal academic performance of so many of our schools is not clear to me. All evidence that I see, tells me that you appreciate the gravity of the situation. I am invested with you in your efforts.
One of the most important improvements that you have made is to bring new, talented leaders to our district. My observations are that DSCD was far too insular and in desperate need of an infusion of new ideas and modern expertise. New, outside talent helps break the hegemony of inefficient and questionable past practices in many areas.
It is unfortunate that you have been charged with drafting a response to a letter that deals with allegations of board member misconduct. You chose to highlight your accomplishments and the perfunctory steps that the district has taken based on previous input from SACS. While I believe that your efforts are sincere and based upon facts, I do not see evidence that the board, as a whole, has joined with you to steer the district into calm financial waters and accomplish our mission to properly educate the students in DeKalb. The reasons for the resistance from some board members remain opaque to me. I only see the fragments of “a posteriori” evidence of their resistance. The letter from SACS is an additional clue to me that there is much going on beneath the surface that is not disclosed to all board members. This is not healthy and I am left to surmise that it has encumbered you in your ability to execute actions that move the district forward.
Specifically, the letter asks that the district address the allegations of poor financial management, board interference with operations and continued/multiple violations of board policy. While your letter addresses the positive and sincere steps you have taken, it does not address these allegations directly. Indeed, these allegations pertain to behavior that existed prior to your arrival. I do not know of a way that you could address those experiences. I, however, can say what I see.
Regarding the fiscal management of the district, since almost the very beginning of my time on the board (January 11), I began to unravel what appeared to me to be a budget that was, at best, a weak suggestion on how to spend money and, at worst, a document based on deception. Monthly, I queried, the CFO at the time and did not receive answers that could withstand the scrutiny of the facts. I have been specifically focused on the large variance in our electricity budget and our legal fees. As you know, our electricity budget has been significantly under-budgeted for at least 5 years. Earlier this year, I did a spreadsheet demonstrating this fact. Unfortunately, last year, when I would ask questions of our previous CFO, the response was either about the temperatures being above average or a rate increase. The facts are the our “actual” expenditures have been $15-16 million dollars for the last 5 years but we have consistently budgeted $10.5 million for this line item. Over the course of 5 years, that is a net of approximately $25 million in deficit on this one line item. A similar analysis can be made about legal fees. If you compare the volume of total disbursements to the budget over the last five years, we have spent over $50 million more than we budgeted. As you know since you have been in the district, I have continued to point this out to the public and asked for a culture of fiscal restraint to take root. I have publically discussed this at board meetings for over a year. Thankfully, your new CFO, Mr. Perrone has improved our budget and brought a high degree of professionalism and expertise to our financial department. Without a solid financial footing we cannot educate our children.
I am disturbed, but not surprised, by the allegations of board misconduct. As I stated, I only see the aftereffect; while the action remains opaque to me. I am deeply concerned that misconduct could undermine the efforts you are making. We cannot afford to return to the days of old when fiscal irresponsibility, divisiveness, opacity and punitive resource allocations ruled the day. I fear that if this type of behavior continues to go unchecked, it will be impossible for you or any superintendent to be successful. Our children and our taxpayers will suffer. Indeed, because we are part of a larger metro area, a failure of DeKalb, has broad reaching implications for the economic development of our region and state. There is much as stake.
I will make my comments available to Dr. Elgart in addition to the letter that you send. I have asked for a board meeting to discuss this matter but it appears that this will not occur. In the absence of a meeting, I intend to make my comments public. In the meantime, please keep moving the district towards stability and success.