Florida grand jury says Broward County school board corrupt, should be abolished

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In a report released Friday, a special grand jury investigating the School Board of the nation’s sixth largest school district, accused it of rampant corruption and  reckless spending of taxpayer monies.

The Florida grand jury said that things are so bad, that if it had the power, it would abolish the Broward County School Board.

“We cannot imagine any level of incompetence that would explain what we have seen,’’ reads a report compiled by the grand jury. “Therefore we are reluctantly compelled to conclude that at least some of this behavior can best be explained by corruption of our officials by contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.

The report also said that the district superintendent Jim Notter, was not strong enough to run the school system.

The 51-page report provides details of Board members of taking political donations from contractors and vendors doing business with the district, and handing out millions of dollars of contracts for goods and services to those supporters.

The report concludes:

“The corruptive influence here is most often campaign contributions from individuals with a financial stake in how Board members vote. Long ago the Board should have recognized the risk that putting themselves in the center of handing out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars would inevitably drawn attention and undue influence from moneyed interests…Only now, years later and with pressure from all sides, have they begun to take steps to resolve this and other issues.

“Unfortunately based on the history of this Board as an institution, we have no confidence in their ability to make meaningful changes and to adhere to them. The solutions we see, at least short term, are to remove as much power and influence from the Board as possible and to have an independent outside authority monitor their dealings closely.’’

According to The Miami Herald, the recommendations included:

Refuse campaign contributions from contractors, vendors and others doing business with the Board.

Require mandatory ethics training and testing by an outside agency.

All late additions to the Board’s agenda must be discussed at a public meeting.

Add more detail to agenda items or provide a link to where more information concerning the item can be found.

Reduce the threshold on spending items on the consent agenda.

Remove retainer reductions from consent agenda.

Require recommendation of the Superintendent or the Deputy Superintendent for reduction in retainer to be in writing and under their signature.

End the influence of the Board over the Building department by turning over inspections to local building departments.

Reduce number of school board members to 5.

Place before the voters the issue of electing the Superintendent.

Create independent office of Inspector General to monitor the Board and District

Prohibit board members from being involved in the selection of contractors, vendors, or financial institutions.

No official business should be conducted between school board members and staff

All bids should be opened in public, with Auditor there to certify bids met minimums.

No decisions should be made anywhere other than a regularly scheduled board meeting.

No discussions should be had other than at Board meetings or workshops as per Sunshine Law requirements.

Prohibit gifts of any value to any Board member or District employee from anyone doing business with the District or lobbying the Board

Empower Department of Education to penalize districts that don’t file require paperwork by withholding any state funds until certificates of occupancy, inspections and other project documents are filed.

The report also recommended that an outside monitor be appointed to review every action of the current Board.

The Miami Herald

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Atlanta school officials reprimanded for continued obstruction in cheating probe

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Georgia state officials, investigating a culture of “intimidating, threatening and retaliating” against Atlanta Public School employees who come forward with information about widespread cheating and corruption in the system, sent a letter to the school board on Wednesday, demanding that the obstructive practices cease immediately.

Investigators appointed last summer by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, say they have found evidence that the district-wide cheating on the state’s standardized test, the CRTC, has been going on for years. Since the early 2000’s, they say that the district engaged in “a pattern and practice” of punishing employees who reported cheating, or asked questions how the CRTC was managed.

The three state investigators who signed the letter, Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde, said the district repeatedly acted to intimidate witnesses during their own investigation, by having principals accused of changing test scores stand outside the room were witnesses were giving statements “with the obvious intent to make their presence known and to put a chilling effect on the staff member being interviewed.”

The letter also detailed accusations that a high level official in the district encouraged principals to refuse to cooperate with state investigators, and instead, write “go to hell” memos to state agents.

Even after the district learned of the official’s illegal actions, it waited two months before taking action, consisting of re-assigning the employee. During that period, the official took retaliatory action against at least one whistleblowing district employee.

The state investigators also demanded that the district immediately stop their own investigation, believing it was intended to further suppress information. District Superintendent Beverly Hall responded by denying the district was investigating anything, saying only that it was “conducting an analysis.”

Before the scandal was exposed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta school system was heralded as a model of success by turning around a poorly performing school system in just a few years’ time.

In 2008, the AJC reported that an independent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania determined that the vastly improved test scores were statistically impossible.

Ultimately, outside investigators found widespread evidence of cheating in at least 58 schools. Test sheets showed that incorrect answers were erased on tests, and correct answers were substituted. Investigators also said that many teachers admitted to changing test results, and supplying questions and answers to students before handing out tests.

Largely based on the phony scoring achievements, the district’s Superintendent Hall, was named 2009 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. In May 2010, she was appointed by President Obama to the National Board of Education Sciences.

The AJC reported last month that the district has punished teachers that have reported the cover up of  cheating and other illegal activities, and has rewarded those who keep quiet.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Cuomo takes aim at supersized school superintendent salaries

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Cuomo thinks some public school superintendents salaries need to be capped.

Perhaps at an annual salary of $179,000, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a bargain. On the other hand, perhaps more than a few of the state’s public school superintendent’s salaries are over-the-top inflated. At least that’s what comes to mind upon hearing what the hamlet of Syosset on Long Island is paying its school chief, Carole G. Hankin: $386,868. Her total package including benefits, expense accounts and other comp: $506,000.

Singled out by Cuomo in his budget address as an example of excess in many school districts, Hankin earned more than any other school superintendent in the state.  According to the New York Times, Cuomo’s remarks set the tone for his proposed reduction in local school aid by $2.5 billion, to help balance the state’s budget deficit.

“I understand that they sometimes have to manage budgets, and sometimes the budgets are difficult,” he said. “But why they get paid more than the governor of the state I really don’t understand.”

Currently over 40 percent of public school superintendents make more than $200,000 per year in salary and benefits, and there is no state regulation on how much they can earn.

While state attorney general, school superintendents caught Coumo’s attention, with a practice many were involved with, called double-dipping. While retired and collecting substantial pension checks, many superintendents continued to work in other school districts, and earning large salaries.

Given the current finances of the state, and local school districts, Cuomo said that the practice was unaffordable and just plain wrong.

New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is also trying to make sense of the outsized salaries paid to public school administrators in the Garden State. He recently set a cap on the salaries of most of the state’s medium-sized school districts at $175,000 – the same salary paid to the governor. The cap, which triggered a lawsuit by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, would require over 70 percent of the superintendents to take a pay cut.

School superintendents don’t see the issue the same way as state officials and taxpayers.

Robert J. Lowry, Jr., the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents said, “The state and the schools are facing difficult times that ultimately require strong leadership. Superintendents are trying to provide that leadership, and in many districts, they have passed up raises or made other concessions to save money for their districts and also to set an example.”

The New York Times

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More trouble at Philadelphia School District, exec accused of bid-rigging

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The Philadelphia School District’s chief procurement officer, John J. Byars, has been accused of bid-rigging by a lawyer representing the firm that lost out on a lucrative contract to maintain the district’s Board Street headquarters, and the PHA’s senior management apparently agrees.

Byars was accused of steering a multimillion dollar management contract to U.S. Facilities, Inc. a subsidiary of a minority-owned company run by Willie F. Johnson, a former state and city official, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Former City Solicitor, Carl E. Singley, who represents the firm currently handling the contract, Elliot-Lewis Corp., said that Byars interfered with the competitive bidding process, causing the contract to be awarded to U. S Facilities, Inc. The contract is valued at $2.4 million each year and covers operations, maintenance, and food service at the facility.

Singley’s claims were backed up in a memo written by Jeffrey D. Cardwell, the PSD’s senior vice president for facilities management. The memo called the process “biased” and read in part “the Procurement Office made comments about who they should select.” It said that the intent was clear that U.S. Facilities was the favored vendor.

The school district’s general counsel issued a statement in response to information requests by The Inquirer, saying that PHA lawyers had reviewed the bidding process and “determined that there were anomalies present. Based upon this information and as part of our continued commitment to fairness and transparency in our contracting and procurement efforts, we decided to . . . start the process over.”

A source knowledgeable with the parties said that prior to the bidding process for the contract, Byars made it known that “it was his mission to make sure that Elliott-Lewis did not get the contract. That was a firm statement from him on numerous occasions.”

When Elliot-Lewis made their presentation, Byars was present, which was not typical for such a meeting. The source said that Byars asked “some mean-spirited questions that Elliot-Lewis couldn’t answer. That’s the telltale sign. He was meddling.”

The source went on to say that Byars was making “smart-ass, offhand remarks for the purpose of undermining the process, …and shuffling through (PowerPoint) slides on paper, muttering in an audible voice, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense.’ He was definitely there to disrupt things.”

Based on the chain of events, Cardwell suggested that the School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, extend the Elliot-Lewis contract through June, and start over with the bidding process.

The parent company of U.S. Facilities, PRWT Services, Inc. is a politically connected operation that was formed in 1988 by Johnson, a former regional commissioner of the State Office of Social Service. A lobbyist currently under contract with the PSD, Melonease Shaw, was an executive at PRWT for 15 years.

On Dec. 13, Byars and five other PSD executives were suspended over a controversial $7.5 million contract involving the installation of surveillance cameras at 19 of the district’s high schools. The district’s superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman abruptly fired a contractor that had already started services on the project, and awarded it to a little-known minority firm that was not on the state-approved list to handle the work.

The matter is currently under investigation by the state attorney general’s office and the Pa. Department of Education.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Illinois school superintendents get rich on pension benefits by fleeing state

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Retired school superintendents are making a mad dash for the border, that is, the state border, in order to effectively double up on their annual compensation.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in Illinois, and likely other states, according to an investigative report in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, while educators are moving out of state to get around pension payment rules, superintendents from other states are moving into Illinois, presumably to fill in for the jobs left by those taking advantage of the loophole.

Illinois state laws are in place to prevent its public school superintendents from retiring and triggering outsized pensions, and then taking another superintendent job to collect two checks from the state. Unfortunately, when politicians crafted the law, they forgot to limit retirees’ pensions if a superintendant took a job across state lines.

In many cases, those moving into Illinois are also retirees, hiding from their state while cashing pension checks and continuing to earn large salaries.

Even though the state’s pension system is in serious financial straits, there’s nothing much that can be done under existing rules, since it’s all legal.

“We have allowed a system to develop that is grossly underfunded and that has very generous benefits,” said Laurence Msall, president of Chicago’s Civic Federation, a nonprofit government research organization. “To draw a pension from the state … and then immediately go get another job as a superintendent or in another teaching capacity — they’re really not retiring.”

Some examples found by Tribune investigators include:

  • Retired superintendent of New Trier Township High School District Hank Bangser, collects a $261,681 state pension, while working as a school superintendent in Southern California’s Ojai Unified School District making $170,000. His total annual compensation: $431,681.
  • Retired Wheaton Superintendent Gary Catalani receives a $237,195 Illinois state pension while earning another $195,000 from the Scottsdale, Arizona school district. His total annual compensation: $432,195.
  • Retired South Cook superintendent Eric King receives a $166,608 Illinois state pension and earns another $168,343 salary as the superintendent of the Muncie, Indiana school district, for a total of $334,951.
  • Retired East Maine Superintendent Kathleen Williams receives a $177,711 Illinois state pension, and earns another $156,000 in Wausau, Wisconsin. Her total compensation: $333,711.
  • Retired Superintendent Rebecca van der Bogert collects a $169,050 Illinois state pension, another $21,974 from Massachusetts, and currently works in Florida as the head of the Palm Beach Day Academy.
  • Retired superintendent of the Oak Park and River Forest Districts Attila Weniger, receives an Illinois state pension of $180,302 while earning another $149,500 as the superintendent of the Stevens Point Area Public Schools District in Wisconsin, for a total of $329,802.

The is no system in place that monitors how many retired school superintendents are crossing state lines to work while they are “retired,” and there is no system in the state that checks to make sure that the superintendents are not working another job in Illinois.

Tribune reporters tracked down retired superintendents through Internet searches, newspaper articles and public records, since state records do not track the whereabouts or employment of the retirees.

However, data at the Illinois State Board of Education does show dozens of superintendents moving into its system with 20 or more years of employment at out-of-state districts, but does not show how many are receiving pensions.

All of the superintendents who were contacted by the Tribune defended their employment while collecting retirement benefits, and some were angry that the issue was being raised.

“Somebody who retires can go to another state and work. To me, that is the story, and that’s what I’ve done,” Weninger said.

“I worked uninterrupted for 36 years and obviously made all the (retirement) contributions, as did all of my colleagues,” Bangser, 61, said. “The point is that, I think like anything else, you operate under the rules, restrictions and guidelines of whatever is in place at the time.”

Others see it differently.

One critic, Jeremy Gold, a New York-based actuary and pension expert, called earning multiple government incomes “indicative of sloppy governance and a cavalier attitude by those ‘public servants’ who exploit these loopholes selfishly.”

Gold said “Illinois is the poster child for pension abuses. One of my colleagues calls this child because or children must pay for fiscal irresponsibility.”

“We have allowed a system to develop that is grossly underfunded and that has very generous benefits,” said Laurence Msall, president of Chicago’s Civic Federation, a nonprofit government research organization. “To draw a pension from the state … and then immediately go get another job as a superintendent or in another teaching capacity — they’re really not retiring.”

Another issue that arises when school superintendents play musical chairs, by retiring for the pension and then taking a position elsewhere, is that they deprive employment opportunities for younger administrators moving up in the system, potentially adding to unemployment.

The Chicago Tribune

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Atlanta Public Schools in danger of losing accreditation

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An educational standards agency said Tuesday it has placed Atlanta Public Schools on probation and given the system nine months to make improvements or risk losing accreditation for its high schools. Losing that standing could diminish grant money and make it harder for graduates to get into college.

The system’s board has failed to meet standards on governance and leadership set by accrediting agency AdvancED, said its president and CEO Mark Elgart.

“The reason for probation is the issues are serious,” Elgart said at a news conference in Alpharetta, where the agency has a corporate office. “They not only affect the effective governance of the board but they affect the future direction of the school system and its ability to provide a quality education for all students.”

Board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El said the district is taking the report very seriously and will address all of the concerns in a transparent manner.

“I want to make this absolutely clear, retention of our accreditation is a top priority for this board and administration because the academic standing and reputation of the district is at stake,” he said.

Losing accreditation could put the 50,000-student district in danger of losing private grants and could keep students from gaining admission and winning scholarships at some colleges.

The agency’s move is relatively rare. Of the roughly 5,000 districts nationwide that AdvancED has accredited, only eight are currently on probation, said spokeswoman Jennifer Oliver.

Schools remain accredited during the probation, which doesn’t apply to elementary and middle schools because they are outside the agency’s purview. The system has nine months to make progress toward better-governance requirements outlined by the agency.

Complaints that the school board wasn’t governing effectively prompted AdvancED to make an onsite visit in December and review school system documents.

The board had become divided after the launch of an investigation of allegations of cheating on standardized tests. After months of bickering, four members filed a lawsuit in October alleging that the board’s chairman and vice chairwoman were improperly elected to the leadership positions. They had to give up the positions as part of a settlement, though El became chairman again in a subsequent vote.

To keep its accreditation, the board must develop a long-term education strategy, hire an impartial mediator to resolve board disputes and put in place a transparent process for selecting a new superintendent, among other requirements. The system will have to convince Elgart’s group that it’s making “authentic progress” on those requirements by the end of September, he said.

The Associated Press

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Talk about math problems, Philly’s school admin finds another 25,000 empty seats

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Only two months ago, officials at the Philadelphia School District said that there were 45,000 empty seats in the district’s 248 schools.

On Wednesday, they came up with a slightly different figure: 70,000 empty seats, larger than the number at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Despite the seemingly impossible number of classroom vacancies, the school district has done little in recent years to downsize the system, even while facing budget deficits such as the $430 million shortfall projected in its next fiscal year. Although some schools are only half-utilized, the school district still needs to staff each one with management, security, utilities and maintenance.

The student population has been shrinking over the years, partially due to the rise of charter schools, and the decline in school-age children as the city’s population has decreased. Even though the growing number of empty seats is not a new issue, the school district is only now looking at doing something about it.

Daniel Floyd, the deputy for strategic initiatives, said that “school closing is one option, but not the only one.” Some others are relocating programs to underutilized schools, offering space to charter schools and repurposing some of the school buildings.

The school district currently has 162,000 students, down 11,000 over the last five years, and expects the number to be at 144,000 by 2015.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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