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Crackin' the books: Audit fever grips, distracts TUSD

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What the Devil won't tell you

Crackin' the books: Audit fever grips, distracts TUSD

Run numbers sooner rather than later but remember the real K-12 cash crisis

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Let me tell you everything you are doing wrong in your life.

When should we start?

Oh, you have other things to do? You have hair to wash and a lawn to mow and kids to take the vet and a dog to get to school? Funny how any number of things on to-do lists seems less more than that conversation.

For the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, their whole world has become about whether or not they are hiring an independent auditor, firing part of the audit committee, moving on findings of a financial audit and how soon they will do an audit.

And somehow, the press, the critics and the public at-large misses the bigger story about the finances of Tucson Unified School District and every other district in the state.

Inward and downward we go to some legit points. The school board's most recent foray into the morass was to add a new district residency requirement on the district's Citizens Audit Committee that had the effect of, oh my goodness, look at that — getting rid of two vocal opponents to the board who happened to live outside the district. Oh geez, how did that happen? And they made it retroactive.

"I understand what it looks like," said TUSD Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva. "It's not what it is."

I'll get to what she says it is in a moment but first I'm going to finish being all angry townsfolk.

The board made a decision to give the district's chief financial officer a voting role on the committee and allowed that person to be chair. Staff already has enough power through the presentation of the information. They don't need a chair person's gavel.

The board is also slow-walking a decision on an independent auditor position to report to the board and is in need of a financial audit to shine a big red light on the drawing down of the district's fund balance, said board member Mark Stegeman.

"That is not ever a healthy situation and especially bad going into a year with state budget cuts," Stegeman said. "The district has been in a state of denial about the operating deficit."

So, get on with it, already. Rip the scab off. Count me as one of the guys with a torch in one hand a pitchfork in other for a second.

"TUSD is in many ways a backwater district isolated from best practices," he said. "We have made some improvements in the past few years from a truly horrific management situation when I came on the board."

Still, Stegeman points out that the district has a "long, long way to go."

Rahr. Rahr. Rahr. Pitchfork up. Thrust torch. Repeat.

Now for the thing that never wins awards in journalism and does very little for sanctimony: Context.

The board also fixed those residency requirements for everyone on all other advisory boards and made them retroactive. That's what Grijalva meant by "it's not what it looks like."

I've covered city councils, boards of supervisors and the Arizona Board of Regents. Stepping in mid-conversation with the TUSD board is a bit like responding to a domestic disturbance. Below each assertion is a layer of some ill will, distrust or exasperation.

"Since I've been on the board, people have been saying that there's no transparency," said Grijalva, elected in 2002. "It's like you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Grijalva wants to see more collaboration with the community in ways that aren't adversarial to move the district forward. That's understandable. She's also worried about an independent auditor reporting directly to the board and individual board members. Boy, is that understandable. The last thing an auditor needs is being pulled in five different directions.

Stegeman wants more best practices. That's understandable.

Taxpayers want to know that their money is well spent. That's understandable.

The district and staff need to understand that the public values these audits.

Understand that for all the talk about audits they are helpful and highly over-rated and poorly understood. A management audit of the district found $10 million in savings on a $300 million dollar budget. That's cool but it's hardly world-changing. Yet the press, public and any manner of critics love audits for their own reasons. The press can't afford their own investigations and would like to see actual accountants do them. Taxpayers love to think that they give the schools plenty of money already but it's just misspent and will greet news of any best practice not followed as absolution.

Auditors are treated too often as all-seeing and all-knowing.

Folks they are CPAs and MBAs. They are not the Oracle at Delphi. And they are invoked as unwitting co-conspirators in a massive misdirection.

The real issue that the state ranks 49th in the country in per-pupil spending and as a percentage of wealth, measured against the rest of the country.

However, because the information audits provide is only as good as the ability of readers to comprehend them (talking to you, Arizona media), they can be used to sensationalize so the community's eyes get taken off the ball.

Math: Show your work

Remember the state auditor general's report on the percentage of district dollars making it into classrooms in Arizona, compared to the rest of the country? It was all over the headlines back in March. Those who remember it, probably remember the part where Arizona schools spends too much on "non-classroom" spending.

It just didn't say that. Arizona schools spend less outside the classroom than the national average. It said the small denominator skewed upward the percentage compared to the national average. For the same reason the poor don't have as much to sock away in savings and retirement, Arizona schools don't have less to spend in the classroom. The report's authors pointed this out repeatedly.

The press and public missed it because they didn't read it, or had no idea what a denominator has to do with a percentage in the first place.

That is the now-you-see-it misdirection in the state of Arizona about how 48 percent of its total funding going into the classroom, as opposed to the now-you-don't part where Arizona ranks 49th in per-pupil spending. In this environment, everyone needs to chill out and remember that TUSD doesn't need "best practices" — it needs stupendous practices.

The school district could do better than less than half? Who knows? A big chunk of TUSD's budget is federal money. The feds don't typically pay for classroom dollars but will help in other areas. So that makes a bigger numerator, which also skews the percentage. Will it ever get to the national average of 61 percent? No. Only a handful of school districts of any size in the state managed to accomplish that feat and those districts tend not to have our poverty rate, which means more money for instructional support.

Stegeman's response to this is, of course, because this is true, every dollar should be better spent. Yes, exactly. Given a choice of which problem best defines TUSD's spending woes it's the lack of support from a state that also imposes local spending limits.

The meta problem, of course, is that most voters knew where we rank. No election has been decided on this issue. I never saw an ad run by Gov. Doug Ducey's campaign saying "Arizona is right where it belongs, looking up at 48 states." I never saw a bumper sticker that said" AZ Schools. 49th and loving it!"

The consent of the governed is tacit only in that the no politician has ever paid a price for it because voters don't know. Candidates for the Legislature have not had to make the argument that Arizona schools should rank where they rank. If they doubt the figures, then they should stop using them. These are the figures the auditor general uses.

In the mean time, the state's kids are giving 95 percent of the other kids in America a huge head start in the Knowledge Economy as TUSD squabbles over nudging the dial a click or two in the right direction.

Having covered governments large and small, I know all about how agencies can protect themselves from change and wall themselves off from scrutiny. To the extent that this is happening in TUSD, it needs to be fixed. However, the kids get more and more screwed, when the more the public, press and others with an agenda fret about IT staffing levels and when to weatherize.

That's bitching out the sailor for missing a spot on the deck of the USS Arizona as the enemy planes approach.

Grijalva makes a point about the audit committee being more interested in finding district dirty laundry than in improving its financial footing.

"I asked if they thought the audit committee was helping move the district forward and I barely heard a peep," she said.

Nothing Stegeman said, Grijalva said, or an audit finds needs to operate in opposition. Fix it and move on. However, settling those conflicts is the secondary concern when hashing out the problem with money for schools in Tucson and across the state. Arizona's biggest aberration against the national average is the number "49."

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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