Perhaps turmoil is just hard-wired into the DNA of a public school district with more than 40,000 students. That said, the Fayette County Public Schools have had more than their fair share this year.
This past week a long-awaited report from the state auditor's office about its examination of the district's financial management found at least two things:
■ No money was stolen and no laws broken.
■ Long-standing infighting and personality clashes among the people who manage the district's money have damaged both its operations and its credibility.
The challenge for the district now — its leadership in the central office and the elected school board — is to stop the drama and start solving the problems that have been revealed.
Superintendent Tom Shelton has pledged to do this. Initially defensive about the audit's criticisms aimed at district finance director Rodney Jackson, Shelton said Thursday he had come to realize that arguing about the audit would not serve the district. "I'm not going to fight it because that's not what this is about," he told the Herald-Leader. "We've got problems that need to be fixed."
That's the challenge for everyone: focus on the problems not the personalities.
In that regard, Shelton should rethink his plan to have an internal team investigate the criticisms of Jackson raised by the audit. In this radioactive environment, it would be money well spent to remove internal personalities from this investigation and hire a competent independent outsider to look into and report on those allegations.
Shelton should also move quickly, as he's promised, to set up a hotline for anonymous tips or complaints, as the audit suggested.
The audit recommends that a committee of staff and board members review the tips. People understandably hesitate to report suspected wrongdoing because they fear retaliation. This is one way to be sure problems, whether fraud or simple mistakes, are identified and addressed in a timely fashion.
The dissident school board members — Amanda Ferguson and Doug Barnett — who have consistently criticized Shelton and become lightening rods for discontent with the district's administration — should also refocus on fixing what's broken.
Personality conflicts are a huge part of this story — and always make better conversation and copy than management systems — but the larger problem, the one that will outlast the current board and staff, is the structure that allowed the dysfunction to mangle the process so thoroughly that in two separate years there have been disputes over figures in the budget as large as $19 million and $20 million.
By Shelton's admission, budget director Julane Mullins, who brought some of these issues into public view in May with a memo she sent to the auditor and others, made changes to the budget without submitting them to her supervisor, him or the school board. It's a given that a budget, which projects revenues and expenses a year in advance, will require adjustments. What's perplexing is how, in a public school system spending public monies under a budget approved by a publicly elected board, the system allowed changes with so little public input or discussion.
The good news is that the district began to examine its broken budgeting process in 2012 and now, with the help of a competitive grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is well along in the process of retooling it.
Also, Shelton hired Kyna Koch, a former associate commissioner at the state Department of Education and finance commissioner for the city of Lexington, to help develop an action plan to address the shortcomings found in the audit.
Both of these efforts provide the opportunity to hard-wire transparency, full accountability and a system of checks into FCPS budgeting and finance activities.
No one gets a pass in this story. The events of recent months, the audit findings and the fallout from them have raised serious questions about the management of the Fayette County Public Schools. There are no heroes here.
But heroes aren't what's needed.
What the community, the district and the children whose futures depend upon them need are adults, whether they like each other or not, working honestly to create the best public school system possible.