February 12, 2007

The audit reports released recently by the state Education Department have trig gered a flood of over-the-top rhetoric about waste in four of our largest high-poverty urban districts. One can speculate about the reason for this reaction, but animosity in some quarters toward the Abbott vs. Burke court rulings and the constitutional mandate for increased funding to improve education of our poorest students is likely to top the list.

The four districts -- Camden, Newark, Paterson and Jersey City -- are all operated by the same state Education Department that commissioned the audits. Camden has been informally under state control since 1999. The other three districts have been under formal state operation for so long that it's hard to remember when they last functioned under local control. Actually, it was 1995 for Newark, 1991 for Paterson and 1989 for Jersey City. That means a generation of Newark students, and more than that in Paterson and Jersey City, have spent their entire educational lives under state operation.

Yet the media coverage sur rounding the recently released audits reads as though these cities were shamelessly ripping off the state and its taxpayers. In truth, unlike other New Jersey districts, Newark, Paterson and Jersey City have no boards of education with any legal power or superintendents selected by local boards. What they have are state district superintendents, hired by the state education commissioner, with powers that in other districts reside in local boards and superintendents.

They also have had waves of state Abbott fiscal monitors crawling over one another for years. If anyone ought to be blamed for al leged fiscal irregularities in these districts, it's the Education Department and its officials.

But let's not play the blame game. Let's instead look more closely at these audits. Auditors aren't paid to find perfect fiscal records. They're paid to identify is sues and problems. What did the auditors find? They found serious problems in Camden, to the tune of $13 million. In the other three districts, they "questioned" expenditures totaling about $2 million. Understand, audits raise issues and identify problems; they don't convict anyone.

Curiously, although the Education Department allowed districts to submit written responses to the audits, it released the audits without publicly responding to the districts' explanations or making appropriate adjustments regarding expenditures flagged as "questionable." In the case of Newark, district representatives claim that all $446,000 of those expenditures can be satisfactorily explained. Neither the state nor its outside auditors have spoken out about that claim. Keep in mind, too, that this amount represents less than 0.05 percent of Newark's more than $900 million budget.

What would happen if the same auditors, employed by the state and applying the same rigorous forensic standards -- different than the standards used by districts in their ordinary annual audits -- descended upon large suburban districts? How many would wind up with less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of total expenditures being questioned? I suspect not many.

Of course, we should not allow even small amounts of education funds to be squandered. The education of all our children, especially the poor, is too precious to let a single dollar be misspent. Ultimately, it is the state's responsibility to see to it that all districts use education funds, whether they come from local property taxes or state aid, wisely and well. However, when the state assumes direct operating control of districts, as it did long ago in Camden, Newark, Paterson and Jersey City, its responsibility is immeasurably greater.

The state needs to face up to that responsibility, proceeding in a careful, professional and fair way to determine, first, whether money actually has been misspent and, if it has, what to do about it.

If it turns out that money has been misspent under the state's watch, the blame can't be deflected onto local districts long ago stripped of their powers to run their own affairs. To use the audits to inflame the public or play to biases and stereotypes only compounds the irresponsibility.


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