Alexandria Letters to the Editor: Schools Need Independent Audit

Alexandria Letters to the Editor: Schools Need Independent Audit

To the Editor:

Your Nov. 13, 2014, article on the costs of the tennis courts at T.C. Williams understated the scope of the problem. The article stated that the cost of the tennis courts is $1.2 million. In fact, the original appropriation in 2012 was $490,000, and $220,000 was added for lights in 2014 (after ACPS testified that it had inadequate funding until 2017). However, there was an additional $400,000 budget “transfer” in November 2012 and another $545,000 budget “transfer” in October 2014. The total funding for the tennis courts as of today is $1.67 million.

Would the board have pursued state-of-the-art courts and lights so vigorously if they knew it cost $1.67 million? Would council have voted for it? Where does all this money come from? Who knows? The chair of the School Board and superintendent made clear that cost is no object.

There were some ambiguities about costs when the tennis court lights went before council for approval in 2013, and council pointedly refused to ask about cost. They wanted state-of-the-art courts with lights, so they voted for it and worried about how to pay for it later. Did they manage the funding so the public would not know the real cost until after the vote? Sure looks that way.

This is not the first time ACPS has told the public that a project did not cost very much, and then use the add/delete process to move money around under the radar to cover the real cost with little public knowledge. The new field at Hammond was budgeted for $1.6 million in 2011. The actual final cost? Well over $2 million, and the final cost remains unknown since it got mired in so many disputes. Like the tennis courts, ACPS “moved money around” and magically found at least $400,000 to cover the cost. Where did it come from? Who knows?

ACPS has an uncanny ability to find hundreds of thousands of dollars (amounting to millions) for these big ticket projects, yet School Board member Justin Keating noted at a recent board meeting that kindergarteners are in trailers; students take tests in hallways; some classrooms have no windows; playgrounds are in disrepair. ACPS is already over-enrolled so a new school may be in our near future. Yet the board glibly spends millions in unnecessary facilities. No wonder Keating referred to profligate spending on a pet project as unconscionable in light of ACPS’ real educational needs.

Board Member Hennig further noted that this “found money” is suspiciously what was needed for this pet project down to the penny. Obviously, there is other school money laying around waiting to be raided for pet projects without the bother of public knowledge or council oversight. The city has been pleading the Poverty Act for several years now, cutting some services and reducing jobs. Yet the schools are able to stash away millions quietly.

Lighting Parker Gray stadium at T.C. Williams is controversial, especially in light of the sordid history of the site and the

commitments the city made to people it had wronged over generations. The lights were pitched as costing about $750,000 — a nice chunk of change. Yet no required upgrades and soft costs were included (including a whopping $100,000 in education money for ACPS to hire a lawyer to advocate for the application). ACPS testified that required upgrades to support lighting the stadium will be at least $3.5 million.

Neither ACPS nor the city treat that staggering sum as a relevant consideration, nor consider better cost effective alternatives.

In 2012, several ACPS employees lost their jobs in the wake of an audit showing that they “moved money around” inappropriately. It is true there has been turnover on the board and in ACPS but it appears they are still engaged in the same accounting schemes for pet projects in lieu of educational requirements. At a board meeting in December 2013 discussing lighting the tennis courts, one member stated that they should “slide that sucker in, don’t say too much and get it done.” That

strategy was apparently adopted.

The time has come for an independent audit by a third party of ACPS finances to restore public and council confidence in ACPS stewardship of its funds.

Frank Putzu