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Letter: Rebuilding Public Trust

To the Editor:

The public appears to have lost trust in the Alexandria Public School Board and its superintendent in the wake of the recent independent audit which revealed likely unethical activity on the part of employees of the Alexandria Public School system. The problem in this most recent case is accountability and public trust. Please note the auditor’s finding of a “dysfunctional environment.” And this in a public institution that is supposed to teach our children not just skills, but some deeper understanding of the ethics and morals that are fundamental to public trust.

Allegedly, certain employees mismanaged capital improvement plan funds by taking advantage of a “dysfunctional environment” and intentionally flouting District policies. The audit findings included the discovery that employees: awarded contracts without first checking to ensure money was available, transferred dollars between projects without school board oversight, and failed to timely pay more than $3 million worth of outstanding invoices. Worse yet, the audit revealed that employees actually encouraged vendors to submit fraudulent invoices. Finally, the audit uncovered at least one potential conflict of interest: an employee, previously a contractor for the Alexandria City Public School, hired a district vendor for a personal job.

In the wake of these findings, the vice mayor has called for the resignation of the superintendent, and both Councilmember Fanon and Councilmember Hughes have called for significantly greater oversight — even as the chairperson of the school board has challenged the right of Vice Mayor Donley to call for the superintendent’s resignation.

It seems to me there are a number of serious issues that will be critical to address.

First, the vice mayor and council members are exactly right. They bear the burden and responsibility for raising the taxes not only to pay the operating costs for the school system, including the salary and benefits of the superintendent, but also accept the tax burden to finance the long-term debt issued on behalf of the school district. They properly expect accountability. They have not received it.

Second, the mayor and council need an exact accounting of what taxpayer funds were siphoned off from classrooms and programs because of the mismanagement of the funds, the other “dysfunction,” and the costs associated with not just the audit, but also the loss of critical personnel. What will this cost in terms of reduced services to students? And they need, as we need, comfort that the “right management atmosphere” that has been so missing will be installed.

Third, it is clear there has been an aura of fear, or as one individual described it to me, “the wrong management atmosphere.” There has been significant turnover. Some key staff at the school system have been overwhelmed and overburdened with responsibilities. The message from the top is one of no accountability. So it should come as no surprise that there appears to be an ethical morass in the system. The mayor and council have not just an incentive and moral responsibility to demand for better, but also an accountability to all of us who care about our community and its future — and for the wise and caring investment of the taxes we pay to city hall.

The city, as part of its budget adoption, should insist upon two critical actions: first, a management expert must be hired to examine in depth the “dysfunction” and report back with recommendations. Second, the school system needs to adopt and enforce an ethics system if it to ever recover the public trust.

Our new manager in Alexandria has proposed a major ethics initiative. Such an initiative must be extended to the school system; it must apply to both the elected school board members and the superintendent. It must be constructed in such a way that any employee may, if she or he becomes aware of a potential violation, make an anonymous report with certainty action will be taken — and that there will not be retribution. It must ensure that no one in the school administration or the school board has any say in the selection of such an ethics panel. It would be a bonus if ethics became a part of the Alexandria school curriculum. When I attended public school, an important component of second grade was learning about our city and community — and that we all were part of it and had some moral responsibilities to each other and our community.

Rebuilding the trust so rashly eroded and accepting the very critical role the mayor and council play in doing the heavy lifting of raising the taxes and diverting such a heavy proportion to the school board means there must be a change in attitude.

Frank Shafroth