Friday, February 06, 2009

Al Carr Wants You to Know How Your Schools Are Spending Your Money

Last year, the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill that created a searchable online database of vendor payments by state agencies exceeding $25,000. Montgomery County Council Members Phil Andrews and Roger Berliner have introduced a bill that would create a comparable county database. The problem is that neither law would cover Maryland’s public school districts. Delegate Al Carr (D-18) has introduced a local bill requiring the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to establish its own online database for payments over $10,000. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Not if you’re Superintendent Jerry Weast!

At the January 13 meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Education, school officials listed several objections to Delegate Carr’s bill, including its sole application to MCPS, its lower payment threshold and its $50,000-60,000 cost. Dr. Weast offered these remarks to the Board after a discussion about possible state funding:

I’m very interested in that because here it is a fact that we didn’t get funding and it is a fact that we are losing construction funding and it is a fact that the state has got enormous financial problems. So while there are a lot of wonderful things, one has to do a return on investment and a cost-benefit ratio. What this will do is it causes you ongoing expense and labor cost to maintain, which means that takes away from another area because your budget isn’t going up that much. So I think it’s incumbent upon us to ask – because they just turn to us and say, “take it out of your Bridge to Excellence” or “take it out of your…”

You know, I mean, I try to be very transparent with you about where your money’s at, where it’s going and what it’s tied up with and how it drives our education and construction programs. So I would be very interested to know… It’s important, I’m sure for Mr. Carr to get a bill passed, you know. It’s very early in his legislative career and it must be important to one of his constituents. But who will this benefit? And what level of benefit and who will pay for it are issues I think you have to… We’re going to have to take a more definitive stance than we ever had before because we’ve got less money than we’ve ever had before.
The Board approved a resolution to support Delegate Carr’s bill contingent on receiving state funding for the database’s cost and setting the payment threshold at $25,000. But that was not good enough for Dr. Weast, who went on:

I assume on the last one that you will oppose if the money is not there? Because I’ve seen these bills get through without…

Board Member Chris Barclay: I think given what we raised earlier when we dealt with our legislative position generally that we would oppose anything that’s an unfunded mandate. So thank you for saying that because we do need to be clear the issue here is if we are faced with an unfunded mandate I believe that we have an obligation to oppose it.

Board President Shirley Brandman: I think we’re trying to balance a recognition that it’s not that we oppose accountability, it’s not that we oppose transparency, it’s that we could not do this…

Dr. Weast: I understand, but I, you know… look… you just listened to Highland, you listened to all the efforts we put forth, we’ve cut twenty million… There becomes a law of diminished… I have to advise you as your leader, while it is nice to be kind to everybody, I think kindness is always important, when you get it down to it’s only on us and it’s a much more stringent level than anyplace else, it will cost you more employee time and I haven’t heard any of the benefits that you’re going to reap from this, you know, other than being helpful to somebody that wants to get a bill through.

So oppose unless money is attached sends a completely different signal than support unless money is attached because money is not going to be attached to this. He is not going to get state dollars. I’m not aware of any… I mean, let’s be realistic. If you think they’re going to give a junior Delegate from our county a funding stream for a bill for a particular county… I’ve yet to see that occur. But they will give that Delegate support for a bill so that Delegate gets the bill through but you won’t get the funding stream.
“Your leader!” Now that’s classic Jerry Weast! And you’ve gotta love the fact that no one on the Board corrected him.

Dr. Weast has a good question about how to pay for the database. After all, in a $2 billion+ school budget, it is impossible to find $50,000-60,000. So here are two suggestions:

1. Perhaps citizen activists using the new database could spot questionable practices by the likes of former administrator John Q. Porter, thereby saving the district oodles of money.

2. Or maybe MCPS could crack down on sloppy uses of system credit cards.

But Dr. Weast asks another good question: who benefits from all of this? How about we the taxpayers?