State Audit Report

As an accountant and former auditor, today’s report was a riveting read.

Given the past couple of years, the MD state legislative audit of HCPSS presented a consistent story that noted sole-sourced contracts and mishandled mileage stipends. We’ve known about some of these items and inflated health care costs and similar issues drove Dr. Ball and the Council to have their auditor do another audit.

Finding 5 was somewhat surprising – “HCPSS lacked evidence that the salaries for 142 administrative employees, which totaled $15.3 million in fiscal year 2014, had been approved by the Board as required by State Law.” Worse was the claims by HCPSS “that the salaries and pay scale were provided to certain Board members“ (emphasis mine). Our Central Office administrators and managers make a lot of money. Side note: Did you know that some managers have been demoted, but kept at their manager salaries? Their title in the payroll system stays the same, so they can’t seek refuge with Howard County Education Association. Crafty, right?

Add another piece of perplexing and disappointing evidence: the Board Chair (or her proxy) wrote a very defensive and confrontational response to the State Legislative Auditor that was sent WITHOUT notifying the entire Board of Education. This meant Board members were blindsided the other day as the report was being circulated in advance of its official release today (Oct. 21).

What does this mean? Well, the Board is completely dysfunctional. The leadership of the school system is going into bunker mode and attempting to defend itself against the indefensible. I attended the PTA Presidents meeting with the Board earlier this week. They constantly blamed the county for budget cuts because getting $32 million more than the prior year is apparently a budget cut. Dr. Altwerger, thankfully, mentioned looking for areas to cut that do NOT affect the classroom. But the Board majority wants parents to mobilize against the County Executive and Council because they’re the bogeymen that “cut” the Budget. They’re hitting the kids where it hurts so parents will lobby on behalf of the Board, when there is no shared pain on the part of HCPSS Administration.

Is it world-class to act this way? To fight our elected officials, both the HCPSS Board and our county/state legislators? Is it world-class to expose student information to potential hacking? How is this meeting the goal of “Families and the community are engaged and supported as partners in education?”

In Maryland, we have NINE days to vote. Take advantage of your right to vote. Tell people who might not be paying attention to what is happening to the highly decorated Howard County school system. (Also tell them that HCPSS and thus, we taxpayers, pay for some of those decorations.) The Board vote matters for our property values and taxes and our reputation, but it primarily matters for our students and parents and educators. Rebuilding trust may take awhile, but let’s start the process on Election Day.

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Testimony FOR Budget Review Committee

Last night, I joined several members of the community in support of Dr. Ball’s bill CR 88 that creates a School Budget Review Committee under the aegis of the Council, rather than the Board of Education.

My testimony:

Good evening. My name is Kirsten Coombs. I am a member of the Town Center Village Board and my testimony is my personal opinion. I am a Certified Public Accountant, although not practicing currently. I have 20 years of experience in the accounting field & I have an MBA.

When the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee was suspended in 2014, HCEA asked whether there was interest in convening an unofficial committee. I was glad to join and began working on the analysis of this $800 million budget.

That process taught me that the Superintendent and the Board of Education majority are unwilling to answer simple questions about the taxpayer money they receive. A budget demonstrates priorities for the coming year. The 2016 budget and now the 2017 one indicate that the Superintendent prioritizes higher class sizes, fewer instructional assistants, fewer textbooks, unproven trendy sounding programs and eliminating special education services. The Budget director of HCPSS referred to saving taxpayer money on special education, which Ms. Terrasa called offensive. Despite a forecasted increase in children with special needs, the Superintendent did not add any staff to school based services to address this increase.

An appropriate budget process should address the coming year as it is, as well as system priorities. Given that we are discussing taxpayer money, the budget process should also be transparent to the citizens. Unfortunately, the budget process has not even been transparent to some sitting Board of Education members. The Superintendent has dismissed Board members’ questions about it.

Please support this legislation to begin the process of restoring trust in our school system. Thank you.