High rolling educators fail public

In Fiscal Year 2008, Kentucky spent $21.7 million buying textbooks for students in the state's public school system.

Today, free textbooks in K-12 public schools have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. They became the extinct victims of substantial cuts in state spending on education in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

While avoiding free textbooks' fate of complete eradication, other important K-12 programs took significant post-recession hits as well.

Between FY 2008 and FY 2013, spending on extended school services declined by 61 percent; professional development for teachers took a 65 percent hit; school technology went down 21 percent; career and technical education dropped 22 percent; preschool had a 5 percent decrease.

And perhaps the most frightening of all, given recent events, state spending on keeping schools safe dropped 60 percent.

Yes, these reductions were part of the price K-12 public education paid for avoiding cuts in SEEK, the basic per-pupil school funding formula established by the Kentucky Education Reform Act a couple of decades ago.

But thinking of SEEK as having avoided cuts because the state has maintained the 2008 funding level is equivalent to thinking you can sell the vehicle you bought in 2008 for the same value today.

Inflation and growth in the student population have visited de facto cuts on SEEK, just as miles and years have decreased the value of your vehicle.

We bring all of this up to provide a little perspective to state Auditor Adam Edelen's appearance before the Interim Joint Education Committee Monday, where he reported on audits his office has completed in 14 school districts.

These audits found problems with lack of oversight and documentation involving procurement, travel, credit-card use, employee compensation, attorneys' billings and even superintendents' contracts. Some glitches were minor; others were not.

In the Dayton Independent School District, auditors found nearly $224,000 in unauthorized payments to a former superintendent. In Mason County, they discovered nearly $200,000 in questionable spending, including excessive benefits for the superintendent. Other notable findings include, but are far from limited to:

■ Forty-six Kenton County food service employees attending a national conference in Las Vegas at a cost of over $40,000.

■ Breathitt County paying employees for more days than were authorized in their contracts at a cost of over $190,000 during a three-year period.

■ A potential conflict of interest involving a vendor waiving the registration fee and providing free lodging and an open bar for Fayette County school employees attending a conference in Nashville.

■ School board approval of a $32,000 payment for the Carroll County superintendent to participate in a doctoral program that included a trip to Finland, even though this benefit was not included in the superintendent's contract and no provision in the contract required repayment of the expenditure if the superintendent left the district immediately after receiving the doctorate.

■ More than $150,000 in fees paid to the attorney for the Webster County school board without a written contract.

Education Week's Quality Counts 2013 state report card on Kentucky was mostly filled out with variations on A, B and C. In the spending category, however, Kentucky got an F, a strong statement about the need for an increased state contribution to K-12 education.

Admittedly, if the state recaptured every penny of the questionable or outright wasteful spending identified in the 14 districts audited to date, we would be talking chump change compared to the gap between current spending and the optimum level of state funding for education, chump change that almost certainly wouldn't change that F grade.

But the impact these findings have on the public's perception of the need for spending more state money on education isn't small at all. It's huge.

It's huge because the images of superintendents and employees receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess pay, of trips to Las Vegas and Finland, and all the other negative images created by these audits will make it more difficult for education advocates to sell the public on the very real need for funding Kentucky's schools adequately.

Even though additional school district audits may create more negative images and ratchet up the degree of difficulty education advocates face, Edelen and his staff need to keep at it.

Knowing they may be next in line for an audit could be the best way to get Kentucky school districts to eliminate the practices that create those negative images and to embrace policies that ensure tax dollars going to education get spent wisely, not lavishly.

Read the audits

The audits can be found at: auditor.ky.gov/auditreports/Pages/SchoolDistrictExaminations.aspx