Dunwoody’s representative on the DeKalb School Board issued a statement for the first time regarding a recent report that put the district on probation; In it, she pointed out many of the financial problems cited by the district's oversight agency were unearthed months earlier by her, only to be met by “stonewalling and deception” by school staff.
Representative Nancy Jester, in a blog post on Wednesday night, noted her whistleblower items could help in her ouster from the board, if Gov. Nathan Deal takes the action to disband the nine-member body in the coming weeks due to its probationary status.
Two weeks ago, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees the district, wrote a 20-page report that details systemic problems in the state’s third-largest district.
The report alleges that the board is rife with nepotism, that some board members act independently of board priorites and routinely in service to “their schools,” and that board members have acted to undermine district budgets by lobbying to keep certain programs despite a collective decision to cut them – among other issues.
Jester, who has sat on the board for two years in her freshman term, says in her recent post that she has worked to bring reform issues to light, pointing out many financial issues that helped SACS in its efforts to investigate the school district.
SACS in fact - Jester asserts - used a key budget analysis she produced months before the SACS report was issued that pointed to budget-busting items such as utilities and legal fees that helped push the district tens of millions of dollars in the red over the last several years.
“My public statements at board meetings span two administrations,” Jester wrote. “I have written that it appears to me that our budgets for the past six years were, at best, a weak suggestion of how to spend money and, at worst, a document based on deception.”
The SACS report cites specific examples where board members lobby for ways to work around the budget and interfere in the day-to-day operations and manangement of the school district.
For example, one member - not named - was alleged to be lobbying to reinstate a transportation program that provided extra buses to individual schools, despite a completely opposite intiative to eliminate the transportation extras and cut those costs from the budget.
Jester, for her part, focused on utilites, and the barriers inherent in understanding why the item overran its budget target consistently.
“I was publically misled by administration officials who stated at board meetings that our budgeting issues with electricity (one of the many areas I cited as problematic) were due to (1) unseasonably hot/cold summers/winters and (2) increases in electricity rates,” she wrote. “These statements were demonstrably false.”
She said at the time of the discovery “no agency, government department or official was interested in my findings.“
Jester said that her own analysis also uncovered that the school’s central administration was the only salary component that increased over the last six years.
That analysis was important because the district had, under pressure, trimmed what independent auditors had deemed a bloated front office. Yet costs continued to rise, according to district reports.
Jester suggested, however, that even though she has uncovered some of the financial discrepancies in the district, SACS is making it a condition of reform that board members take a more hands-off approach and let the districts' staff manage.
Based on alleged deceptions by staff on various inquires into finances, Jester questions what her role should be in solving problems.
“While I’m flattered by AdvancED’s extensive use of my research and statements; their conclusions, required actions, indeed, their paradigm for “team governance” would prevent me or any other board member from discovering and properly alerting the public to these misdeeds (see required action #5),” she wrote.
One of a list of recommendations says the board should “establish and enforce a policy that board members honor the chain-of-command when communicating with stakeholders.”
“Given the record of misleading statements and nonresponsive behavior I have dealt with from administrators around the financial issues that (SACS) has now chosen to present as evidence to warrant placing DeKalb on probation, it seems odd that they would then simultaneously hold the position that Board members just need to be less suspicious and more trusting of staff members,” she wrote.
Jester also talks about the process for which she could lose her position on the board. Now that the district has been put on probation for the second time in two years, the state’s board of education will review the matter. Deal, under a new state law, has the power to disband the board based on its current probabtion.
The law states that Deal, if he were to choose this route, would have to oust the entire board. Individual board members could apply for reappointment, but the decision would be made by Deal – an unusual situation for elected representatves.
“If I were an employee, I would most likely be protected under whistleblower laws,” Jester wrote. “How ironic that I may be removed from office exactly because I discovered and made public the financial misdeeds of the third-largest school district in our state. What message does this send to board members around the state or to future board members in DeKalb?
Early reaction to Jester’s post was supportive. Jester self-deprecatingly said that many of the financial issues she has worked to uncover is because she was a “Mom with a calculator,” ignoring her proffesional background in financial management.
“Tucker Guy” had this to say on Jester's blog.
“Thank you for being a mom with a calculator," he wrote. "For too long Dekalb County Schools have been led by people who do not feel they should be held accountable for their actions, inactions and malfeasance."
I had noticed the parts of the report that seemed aimed at you. If not Board of Education members, who can ask school officials about discrepancies and inaccuracies in the budget? I would be interested in SACS’ answer to that."