Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cinfici’s Rebuttal to the Berks County Intermediate Unit President’s Letter to the Editor

The President of the Berks County Intermediate Unit, Dr. John George, responded to my letter to the editor of the Reading Eagle, the manuscript of which I posted in my last post, with a letter of his own.  He misinterprets my point about the Reading School District finances and attempts to refute my other points by dismissing my interpretations of fact as “errors,” yet he fails to be able to deny my central points, some of which he leaves uncontested.

On the finances, George apparently misinterpreted my criticism of the Eagle’s coverage in which I stated the Reading School District’s budget surpluses the last three years disproved the newspaper’s “criticism over that period that the District’s finances were distressed.”  He simply referred to the Auditor General’s report and the curriculum audit as his response.  The former was about the District’s poor financial controls and the latter was hardly focused on finances.  The Eagle had reported the Auditor General’s findings of the District administration’s poor fiscal controls, which left the School Board and everyone else unable to know the true condition of the District’s finances.  Because no one knew exactly where the District stood, my point was that the Eagle and other critics of the Board should have been more skeptical of the declarations of the District’s administrations, especially after Board members pointed out inaccuracies in their statements.  For example, after the District’s Business Manager last year claimed the District was on course for a $900,000 budget shortfall, I asked if his figures included the $300,000 budgetary reserve.  He replied that they did not, but the Eagle neither printed my question, nor subtracted this figure from the total expected shortfall, instead uncritically taking the official administration statements as true.  The Eagle accurately reported similar statements by the District’s administrations over the last three years, but what those administrations were claiming has been proven inaccurate, as the BCIU has discovered instead that each of the budgets approved by previous Boards produced surpluses of millions of dollars.  Therefore, the District was not financially “distressed” and previous Boards – not the BCIU – deserve much of the credit for the District’s $16.4 million budgetary reserve.  My point is not that the District was in good fiscal shape, only that the dire warnings and criticisms were exaggerated or even baseless.  It is noteworthy that George was unable to deny the surpluses and take all the credit for the District’s improved finances. 

I also note here the point I made the last time I spoke on WEEU 850 AM’s Feedback talk-show that the Auditor General’s praise of the District for instituting monthly financial reports vindicated the previous Board, for we had pushed for such a tool in order for the new Board to be able to make better informed decisions.

On the BCIU’s conflict of interest, George’s argument is that because an intermediate unit is a government agency that is created to provide education services to school districts, there is no conflict of interest in favoring itself over private-sector service providers in the budget of a school district of which it has taken over the administration.  Because it is legal does not mean it is not a conflict of interest or that it is a practice in the best interest of the taxpayers.  By favoring itself, an intermediate unit benefits its own budget at the expense of the taxpayers, which also personally enhances the resume of its president. 

This conflict was on top of the one violated by the BCIU doing a study on the District that exaggerated the District’s problems and then recommending itself to by hired to take over the administration of the District.  It was not surprising that this group of education administrators recommended that the solution to the District’s problems was to hire more education administrators.

On the hiring, George dismissed any criticism of his hiring practices by pointing out that the Board approved the hiring.  However, the fact that the School Board approved the hiring recommended by the BCIU does not mean the Board followed proper procedures or that the BCIU’s recommendations were best for the District.  The BCIU mislead the Board into violating its own rules.  The BCIU added new administrative positions to the already top-heavy District’s administration that it filled with its own staff, without having created the positions by resolution, let alone creating job descriptions until after filling the positions.  Approving an organization chart does not ipso facto legally create the position, as the chart is only for establishing which positions are in what departments and the chains of command; the approval of an organization chart is thus not an enabling resolution.  By circumventing the hiring rules that are meant not only to prevent the Board, but also administrators, from engaging in nepotism, patronage and cronyism, the BCIU was able to place its own staff and other hand-picked like-minded personnel in key administrative positions, without having to advertise the positions and open them to staff and other potential applicants.  These rules are meant to be fair by being applied to all and to encourage the best qualified applicants to be hired without necessarily excluding any qualified applicant who is related to or friends with a Board member or administrator.  Furthermore, the BCIU’s hiring practices circumvented the District’s consent decree to follow certain hiring practices to avoid disadvantaging certain racial or ethnic minority applicants.  The BCIU did not hire any such minorities as administrators.  Between taking over the budget and hiring its own staff, and continuing to provide consultation to the District for several months beyond the original contract, the BCIU hooked its tentacles into the District for its own benefit that was not necessarily in the best interest of the District.

On the school renovation bonds, I based my contention on multiple knowledgeable and reliable sources.  Regardless, despite his misleading statements, George was unable to deny that millions of dollars in renovation bond money were not used to fix crumbling elementary schools, meaning that the repairs will have to made in the future at a higher cost than if they had been made at the same time as those of the other schools.  

In short, despite his claims of errors in my letter, George was unable to take credit for the surpluses produced by the previous Boards, to deny the BCIU’s conflict of interest in favoring itself in the District’s budget, to deny it violated the District’s hiring rules or that it failed to fix crumbling elementary schools.

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