Second Thought: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Disfunction Junction

This school board isn’t teaching any lessons in responsibility.


There is a persisting adversarial relationship between the citizens of this community and the Fort Worth Independent School District — and therefore between the community and the school board. The obvious question is, why? The answer lies in a series of reports that have surfaced over the last two years, which point clearly to a school system that remains dysfunctional, both administratively and academically.

The capstone was a “forensic audit” revealing $4.8 million in overcharges (including other irregularities) in five of 21 school district construction projects. By extrapolation, that could mean that as much as $20 million in taxpayer money is being squandered on construction overcharges. This board has done nothing to hold the superintendent or his subordinates accountable. The overcharges have not been recovered.

Despite a state comptroller’s report revealing significant opportunities to improve organization and administration, and exposés by Fort Worth Weekly and the Fort Worth Star Telegram pointing to potential fraud and collusion as well as breaches of integrity and policy, there seems to be an atmosphere of business as usual, with a board apparently on the sidelines.

You have to wonder what is behind this apathy. Where is that burning desire to have the most cost-effective and efficient school system offering quality education? We have a superintendent who is the second highest paid in the country. All that seems to be in the offing are scandals and exorbitant “computerized programs” that have done nothing to improve the quality of education.

The state comptroller’s report two years ago mentioned an assistant superintendent of professional development who was being paid more than $100,000 a year for supervising a grand total of two employees. The comptroller recommended downgrading that position to save taxpayer funds. The recommendation was ignored. For that matter, about 100 other central office administrators are paid annual salaries ranging from $70,000 to $129,000. What do they do? What do they produce to enhance education?

An organization chart reveals redundancy and dysfunction. Does this board ever correlate that to escalating costs (and therefore taxes)? That is the obvious place to start in reducing costs — by reducing positions and salaries in administration. A private or public corporation that spent like this would have been out of business a long time ago. This board’s indulgence and defensive posture allow problems and issues to feed on themselves. Then they call in consultants and auditors, at additional expense, to rediscover the same problems. Then the cycle begins anew.

The school district has paid the law firm of Chappell, Hill and Lowrance about $1.8 million over the past three years for legal fees. For what? Does the board monitor such expenses? More important, is the board informed about potential budget overruns before they occur, or only after it is too late to do anything about thaem?

More recently, we have been informed that in addition to education programs being curtailed, some $2.9 million more is required from reserve funds, in order to balance the budget. And another costly audit of the $400 million bond program is in the offing. Is the district’s fiscal controller incompetent? Does the board play an active role in budget execution?

This board has a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers in this community, as well as to the federal and state authorities from which grant money is received. I am hard pressed to find evidence of this board’s willingness or determination to carry out those responsibilities.

I am well versed in the operations of large, complex organizations, and I can assure you the culture of this district will not change until there is a change in leadership and this board is no longer an extension of the superintendent.

Our organization, Truth About Area Schools (TAAS), was formed to enable parents and taxpayers to channel their concerns about the Fort Worth school district. The mission is a cost-effective and efficient administration, coupled with quality education. We taxpayers will explore every available avenue to assure that end. In February, we began circulating a petition expressing taxpayer outrage at the superintendent’s management and supporting the termination of his contract. (The school board could also reassign him or reduce his salary.) More than 900 taxpayers have responded to it thus far. If you live within the district and would like to help with our effort to encourage the board to take action, please call (817) 737-9111.

Nathan Vail is a retired brigadier general of the U.S. Army.

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