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Inspections of school spending records haven’t been welcome in Wisconsin, but they keep officials honest

May 11, 2013 by

KENOSHA, Wis. – We at EAGnews are quickly learning that school officials don’t like it when citizens inspect their spending records.

A few weeks ago Green Bay, Wisconsin school officials issued a panicky press release accusing of us trying to embarrass the district. That was a full week before we were scheduled to release our report on the district’s credit card statements and check registry.

Why were they so certain they were going to be embarrassed by the information we found?

Then last week, a day before we released a similar report for the Kenosha, Wisconsin district, Superintendent Michele Hancock told a television reporter that she was “disturbed by these types of reports.”

Why in the world would that be?

Public schools are public institutions, and their spending records are public records. We did nothing but inspect those records and release a report on what we found.

Yet school administrators acted as though we stuck our nose behind the curtain of the “Great and Powerful Oz” and learned secrets that no mere mortal has any right to know.


Hancock seemed troubled that we reported the raw dollar figures, without explaining to readers the details and supposed necessity behind each expenditure.

As one of her underlings wrote to us in an email, “The data your organization has pulled runs the risk of being taken out of context. Clearly, one cannot make assumptions by looking at this particular data as you have extracted it.”

We completely agree. That’s why we contacted the district a full week before we published our report, asking for explanations for the various types of expenses we found. A district official replied that there wasn’t enough time and staff available to accomplish that in one week.

Again, we say hogwash. The district didn’t have to offer detailed explanations for every item on their spending list. But they could have taken some time to give us some broad ideas behind the many hotel, airline, rental car and restaurant expenses we found.

Then maybe we could have better explained the expenses to readers and Hancock would have been less “disturbed.”

A lesson from Ohio

Kenosha district officials did take the time to answer a few questions for WTMJ-TV news, which followed up on our report with a news segment of its own.

Hancock offered the television folks a little bit of the type of insight we were hoping to get.

For instance, we assumed the $177,666 spent at the Spaghetti Factory was a huge restaurant tab. But Hancock told the television station that it was actually rent money for a building used for an alternative learning center.

Fair enough. But that makes us wonder if that’s a reasonable amount to pay in rent for such a building, or if the district could find a better deal somewhere else. When you’re handling public dollars you should always be looking for better deals.

There are a lot of questions about school spending that should be asked on a regular basis, just to keep everyone honest and on their toes. And the only way those questions will be asked is if someone – like EAGnews – takes the time to dig through the spending records.

What good can it possibly do? It might awaken taxpayers and school board members who never thought to take a closer look at how their district spends its millions on a day-to-day basis.

What can happen when people stop probing and asking questions about where the money goes?

We would point to the Madison, Wisconsin school district, where we did an analysis last year of school spending in the 2010-11 school year.

We noted that the district had no central accountability system for the hundreds of credit cards issued to staff. That means a lot of money could potentially be spent with minimal oversight or authorization.

The public might have remained ignorant of that disturbing fact if we had not discovered it during the course of our financial inspection.

We would also point to the Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio school district, where one school board member, Dr. Holly Thacker, suspected financial improprieties and asked a lot of questions. She was told by her colleagues and school administrators that she was overstepping her bounds.

As it turned out, the district’s technology director had allegedly cheated the district out of $4.2 million dollars by approving payments to seven technology vendors operated by his friends and relatives. The last we heard the Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved in the case.

The embezzlement may have continued if Thacker hadn’t insisted on asking questions and probing deeper into the situation.

“I think it’s easy to steal money from public schools when everyone is so close – teachers, board members, the union, administrators,” Thacker told EAGnews last year. “If you don’t have checks and balances, that isn’t a good thing.”

EAGnews will continue to help provide checks and balances by inspecting school spending records, in Wisconsin and districts throughout the nation.

That may inspire some local folks to do the same. There’s much less of a chance of theft or corruption if the keepers of the treasury know someone is watching.

Inspections of school spending records haven’t been welcome in Wisconsin, but they keep officials honest – :: Education Research, Reporting, Analysis and Commentary.

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