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Archive for December, 2012

The Circle of Trust

Process Versus Results – Accreditation by SACS explored the relationship between AdvancED/SACS accreditation and academic results for children.  DeKalb County School District has been accredited for years — as have other Georgia districts and schools that fail children, as witnessed by the state’s low aggregate graduation rates (48th out of 50 states).  My Thoughts on the AdvancED SACS Report pointed out that SACS accreditation teams had been visiting the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) for years, examining DCSD on many “standards and indicators,” including the management of financial resources.  Yet, these teams of SACS accreditors failed to find the simple, yet deceptive, accounting practices that I uncovered shortly after coming onto the board.

Do you know what the teams of accreditors (all expenses charged to DCSD) missed in the AdvancED report?  They missed the “mother of all financial problems.”  They said nothing about the accounting methodology used by DCSD.  The third largest school system in the state (approximately the 24th largest in the nation), has been reporting to the board of education using a cash basis.

Why is this a big deal?  For starters, the cash basis will always overstate account balances because it doesn’t include liabilities already incurred but not yet paid out.  The board would then approve budgets for the next fiscal year without a true picture of where the last year ended.   But that’s just one reason the DCSD accounting methodology is a “big deal.”

I’m just a mom with a calculator, but even I know there are standards for accounting methodologies.  The Georgia Department of Education (GA DOE) says that districts should use an accrual or modified accrual method.  The GA DOE’s manual for financial reporting, Section 1, Chapter 7 states:  “LUAs are urged to follow GAAP during their daily accounting and financial reporting.”

•    LUA stands for “local unit of administration” – that’s accounting-speak for “school district.”
•    GAAP stands for “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.”
•    Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB)

So, why would an accreditation agency that has best practices embedded in its “standards and indicators” ever accredit a district or school that used an accounting methodology that did not conform to the GAAP or requirements from their own state’s Department of Education?

Why would the GA DOE continue to allow a district to operate against GA DOE’s own financial manual; using a method that, in their words: “permits distortions in financial statement representations due to shifts in the timing of cash receipts and disbursements relative to underlying economic events near the end of a fiscal period?” (Section 1, Chapter 7, page 2.)

Doesn’t it seem odd to you that these issues were never brought to the attention of the board or the public by AdvancED/SACS?

Since at least half of the state budget is spent on education, shouldn’t Georgia have ensured that the third largest school district in the state was compliant with common accounting standards?  (I’ll blog later about what I learned during a meeting with state auditors.  Meanwhile, consider this:  in all my time being interviewed I never encountered a financial professional/expert; only educrats and one lawyer.)

I contrast the academic and financial failures that I have noted here with the issues that were highlighted in the AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report.  My personal favorite, I have labeled, “The Pronoun Police.”  On page 11, the report states:  “During interviews, board members used pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “mine.”

Were you aware that a school board member has their First Amendment rights curtailed and must refrain from using these pronouns?  Does that seem like a silly thing to note given the major financial and academic issues on which we should focus?  Yet, the report states, mildly, only that academic achievement has declined.  It does not speak to the administrations’ responsibility in said decline.  It doesn’t even address the competency issue at the heart of the academic failures we have witnessed.  But, it was apparently noteworthy to discuss the pronoun usage of board members.

The DeKalb school system has faced significant challenges over the last several years.  These challenges are what motivated me to run for the board.   I took office in January 2011 and was promptly fed a diet of misleading and false information throughout my tenure on the board.  I consistently pointed out the problems I saw.  Just to note a few:

  • 7.11.11 Board meeting @ 1:31:48 on the recording of the BOE meeting I note the variances in the budget concerning electricity and legal fees.  Mr. McChesney supports me.  
  • 10.03.11 BOE meeting @ 1:04 on the recording I ask about legal fees; @1:05, I note that I continue to “harp” on the electricity issue as we are more than $1 million over-budget; @1:06:11, I ask why we aren’t preparing better budget assumptions; @1:06:39 I am mislead about the reasons the overage has occurred.  
  • 1.19.12 BOE meeting @ 1:46 I bring up electricity again.  Mr. McChesney supports me.  Other BOE members try to prove me wrong, saying that the increase is due to rate increases.

As I highlighted in my December 26, 2012 blog, the AdvancED/SACS report states, “The board members’ questions to the staff displayed a suspicion and lack of trust for any information provided by the staff.”  But AdvancED/SACS fails to ask these critical questions:
•    “Why does the staff provide misleading, incomplete or false information to the board?”
•    “What if staff continues to provide misleading, incomplete or false information to the board?”
•    “What if many of those staff members are still employed by DCSD and continue this practice?”
•    “What if some newly hired staff also engages in similar behavior?”

Part of my “take away” from reading the AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report is that accreditation is attached to pronoun usage of board members, as well as their gullibility.  A friend of mine helped put together a “Circle of Trust” graphic that represents what I see as the paradigm for trust within the AdvancED/SACS accreditation best practices framework:

So, to anyone who wants to be a board of education member, make sure you are comfortable with the “Circle of Trust” — or give me call and I’ll tell you what you are really in for.

–Stay tuned for Fun with Policy DJE and Solutions.

posted by Nancy Jester in AdvancED SACS,DeKalb County School District and have Comments (57)

Process Versus Results – Accreditation by SACS

I thought it would be useful to provide some historical context to the whole accreditation issue.   Five years ago, if you had asked me what accreditation means, I probably would have told you that it meant something about the quality of the education that kids received; that it judged in some way the results of how well children were educated.

It does not.

Accreditation by SACS/AdvancED is big on “process” and “continuous improvement.”  It does not rate how well schools perform their mission to educate children.  Given the recent graduation rates that were released nationally one must wonder about the nature and efficacy of accreditation “processes” and to whom the benefits of “continuous improvement” accrue.

Click here to read the November 26th AJC article showing Georgia ranked 48th out of 50 states in graduation rate.  For even more detail, you can read my November 5th blog.

You will note that we are not graduating even 50% of our African American students in four years of high school instruction, even with an opportunity to take 32 credits on a block schedule of the 24 required to graduate.  Yet, we are in the top ten for money spent on education.   It appears to me that our emphasis on process is quite expensive, but ineffective.  How can we have such poor aggregate graduation rate results and have so many accredited schools and districts in our state?  Shouldn’t we be focused on honestly assessing the results?

State law requires that I must have 9 hours of training annually.  The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) holds large conferences where board members can attend seminars to meet the training requirements.  Your tax dollars pay for board members to attend these conferences.

I recently attended a GSBA conference to get my required training hours.  (I’ll have to blog in the future about how much of the seminar seemed designed as an infomercial for products that GSBA or their vendors sell.  Also, the seminars are largely conducted by educational bureaucrats that tell elected officials how to treat the educational bureaucrats in their district.  But I digress …)

During my seminar, two executives from AdvancED spoke to the group.  I learned that the concept of “district accreditation” is relatively new.  This accreditation product was rolled out from 2004-08.  Many districts in the state do not seek district accreditation. Instead, they have only their schools – or only their high schools — accredited.   State law requires students to graduate from an accredited school to qualify for the HOPE scholarship.  There is NO requirement that a district be accredited.  For Georgia public schools the law permits accreditation by either SACS or the Georgia Accrediting Commission (GAC).  State law also provides methods for homeschoolers to qualify for HOPE scholarships.

During the Q&A at the GSBA conference, I asked AdvancED officials questions about how student achievement should factor into accreditation.  (I recorded this exchange and I’ll try to put it up on my website.)  I noted that our state does not compare well in the recently released graduation statistics.  I further asked:

If processes are used effectively, but achievement results are not improved, what does that say about accreditation?  What is it we’re accrediting?  If it doesn’t correlate strongly with, or have a causal relationship actually, to results for children in achievement then it is a …  the whole process seems to dichotomize there and I’m concerned about that.  Are we focused on process or are we focused on results?”

The response from the AdvancEd official was:

“As far as results … it is a process.  Going through this process, the school or district will go through and look at what is happening.  Accreditation is not based solely on student results.” 

So, there you have it.  And you pay for this process with your tax dollars and cede power over your property values to a concept administered by an unaccountable group, made up of educational bureaucrats.  In the end, the process does not guarantee, judge or rank the quality or results of the education provided to students in your school or district.

Our graduates – our frighteningly few graduates – cannot take “process” to the bank.

Additional reading on this subject:  http://www.nccivitas.org/2011/to-accredit-or-not-to-accredit/

–Stay tuned for more of my thoughts, including: the pronoun police, the circle of trust and solutions.

posted by Nancy Jester in AdvancED SACS,DeKalb County School District and have Comments (15)

My Thoughts on the AdvancED SACS Report

First, I would like to explain that I have been delayed in communicating to you about the AdvancED/SACS report because I have been out of the country since December 15th.  I returned this past Saturday evening (December 22nd).  While I was away I had limited access to the Internet, email and phone.  I had time to quietly reflect on my (almost) two years of service on the board and the AdvancED/SACS Report.  I’m writing to you now in the first of a series of blog posts I have written and plan to post over the next several days.  The opinions I express here are mine alone and I express them as an individual citizen.

No one knows better than I do, that the board as a whole can be very frustrating to watch.  As the board member who most often votes “no”, I endure this frustration more than most.  I am the board member who identified and publically discussed the financial issues that were cited in this report.  For almost two years, I have publically inquired during the presentation of the monthly financial report about the discrepancies that I uncovered.  My public statements at board meetings span two administrations.  I have written that it appears to me that our budgets for the past six years were, at best, a weak suggestion of how to spend money and, at worst, a document based on deception.  I received support for my analysis from only Don McChesney and Pam Speaks.  I was publically misled by administration officials who stated at board meetings that our budgeting issues with electricity (one of the many areas I cited as problematic) were due to (1) unseasonably hot/cold summers/winters and (2) increases in electricity rates.  These statements were demonstrably false.

No agency, government department or official was interested in my findings.  Eventually I posted them on my website (here’s the link to my September 13th entry:  http://whatsupwiththat.nancyjester.com/2012/09/13/5-year-budget-analysis/ ).  My public statements at Board meetings go back to almost the beginning of my service.

Additionally, I discovered that “general administration salaries” have been the only salary category that has increased over six years; including the current budget.  I inquired into this matter at two board meetings but did not receive a response.  Here is the link t0 my analysis:  http://whatsupwiththat.nancyjester.com/2012/11/16/salary-analysis-fy2008-fy2013/.

While I’m flattered by AdvancED’s extensive use of my research and statements; their conclusions, required actions, indeed, their paradigm for “team governance” would prevent me or any other board member from discovering and properly alerting the public to these misdeeds (see required action #5).

The report also states, “The board members’ questions to the staff displayed a suspicion and lack of trust for any information provided by the staff.”  As I stated above, I have been misled and stonewalled when uncovering some of the very financial malfeasance that AdvancED now has decided to recognize.  Suspicion and lack of trust, at this point, is clearly justified as I and my fellow board members are legally accountable as stewards of tax dollars.

I’m also curious as to why, with all of their teams of professional educational bureaucrats visiting and researching DSCD (at our expense),  AdvancED never discovered the financial malfeasance that I brought to light.  I’m just one mom with a calculator.  Given the record of misleading statements and nonresponsive behavior I have dealt with from administrators around the financial issues that AdvancED has now chosen to present as evidence to warrant placing DeKalb on probation, it seems odd that they would then simultaneously hold the position that Board members just need to be less suspicious and more trusting of staff members.

If I were an employee, I would most likely be protected under whistleblower laws.  How ironic that I may be removed from office exactly because I discovered and made public the financial misdeeds of the third largest school district in our state.  What message does this send to board members around the state or to future board members in DeKalb?  Given that the majority of our state budget goes to education, I would think that the state would incentivize and welcome local board members to be watchdogs over these finite resources.  To do otherwise is to steal from the educational lives of children.

Stay tuned – tomorrow, I’ll post my thoughts on the education bureaucrats’ construct of “the governance team” and what that means for your children and tax dollars.

posted by Nancy Jester in AdvancED SACS,DeKalb County School District and have Comments (54)
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