Saturday, January 31, 2009
Parents' Coalition members testify in support of Montgomery County Public Schools - Funding Accountability and Transparency Act - MC 930-09 (Updated)
My testimony is below. And over at the Libes Libation, Don Libes provides his testimony and some observations.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County
For Immediate Release
State Audit of MCPS Confirms Parents' Coalition's concerns:
1,400 MCPS credit cards need oversight
MCPS travel needs to be approved
Montgomery County, Maryland, January 23, 2009 - The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County is pleased that today the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits has released their Financial Practices Performance Audit Report for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
In the summer of 2008, a citizen obtained the list of over 1,400 MCPS employees who have been issued American Express purchasing cards (credit cards). Multiple members of the Parents' Coalition filed Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests to determine how these cards were being used by specific MCPS staff. The MPIA request process was difficult and time consuming. However, eventually credit card "logs" and travel expense reports were obtained for 14 MCPS employees. In just that small sample of expenditures, Parents' Coalition members saw that many of the credit card log purchases were not approved until after the MPIA request had been made. In some cases, the date the purchase had been approved was a year after the purchase was made. In addition, that small sample of credit card logs showed numerous expenditures that seemed to be unrelated to the mission of the school system. Those MPIA requests were made available to the public on the Parents' Coalition website. The credit card logs and travel expense reports have been the most popular items viewed on the Parents' Coalition website to date.
Today, the Parents' Coalition applauds the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits for their audit of the MCPS use of credit cards and travel expenses. The Audit confirms that MCPS oversight of credit cards has been lax and that MCPS has failed to properly monitor and control credit card expenditures and travel.
Chapter 3, Pages 19-23
Included in the Legislative Audit is the following summary:
"However, we found that processes over credit cards need to be strengthened. Specifically, our review disclosed significant weaknesses in internal controls over the procurement card program. These weaknesses included (1) a lack of monitoring over card usage and credit limits, (2) the employee who requested the procurement cards also initially received the cards from the vendor and (3) employees did not always complete card transaction logs, and other logs were not reviewed and approved. We also noted certain potentially questionable credit card purchases. Finally, for certain employees, travel was not approved in advance, as required by MCPS policy.
From the report:
*MCPS records indicated that its employees used credit cards to make a total of $5.6 million in purchases (including textbook purchases). According to MCPS records, during fiscal year 2007, 1,209 employees used credit cards with the monthly charges being paid directly by the school system to the credit card bank. (Please note that as of the summer of 2008 there were 1,400 credit cards in use.)
*In addition, nine of these cards had single transaction limits exceeding $7,500, MCPS’ threshold for obtaining competitive bids.
*MCPS did not ensure that credit card documentation was maintained that adequately supports all purchases and establishes proper supervisory review of every transaction. Our review of 161 calendar year 2007 transactions totaling $55,000 disclosed that 50 transactions totaling $22,800, applicable to 9 cardholders, were not included on transaction logs for subsequent review.
Of the remaining 111 transactions, there was no documented approval on the logs pertaining to 41 transactions (applicable to 6 cardholders) to indicate a supervisory review and approval of the related charges.
*For example, our review of fiscal year 2007 credit card purchases identified 512 purchases totaling $39,400 from vendors that did not appear to have an obvious relationship with the mission of MCPS.
*For example, we noted 119 purchases totaling $8,290 from department stores and 121 purchases totaling $5,571 from party supply stores.
*For example, one school spent a total of $21,000 on food (using credit cards) without obtaining such approval.
*Approximately 26 individuals (that is, upper management employees and Board members) had been issued credit cards that did not have travel-related restrictions, such as for air fare and hotel accommodations. Use of credit cards for travel expenditures may allow cardholders to incur such expenditures without obtaining advance approval, as required by MCPS regulations. Our tests of 32 calendar year 2007 travel expenditures charged to credit cards totaling $19,028 disclosed 30 expenditures totaling $17,930 that were not recorded on monthly activity logs and, therefore, were never approved. In addition, no documentation could be located to support 10 meal expenditures totaling $2,172 that were recorded on credit card statements. According to MCPS records, during fiscal year 2007, travel expenditures totaled $2.5 million, including $80,465 charged on credit cards.
The Parents' Coalition wishes to thank its members, who through their diligence and persistence brought a small amount of sunshine to the use of public funds by Montgomery County school officials.
The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County is a citizen network dedicated to improving the responsiveness and performance of the Montgomery County Public Schools. Drawing from education advocacy groups throughout Montgomery County, Maryland, the Parents' Coalition seeks to use the political process to achieve the goals of coherent, content-rich curriculum standards; high expectations combined with timely remediation and acceleration; a wider range of educational options for parents and children; greater transparency and accountability; and meaningful community input.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
January 21, 2009
Good evening, I am Janis Sartucci a member of the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County. The Parents' Coalition has a website chock full of public information for public school parents in Montgomery County. Our address is www.parentscoalitionmc.com.
I. "The Table" -Where is the Board of Education?
This evening's testimony is on the topic of the Operating Budget; however, the testimony is not being presented to those that are "at the table" deciding what is funded in the Operating Budget and what is cut. Recently, the Superintendent has spoken about those at the table; MCPS staff, two representatives from each of the three employee unions and two representatives from MCCPTA. There is a video of the "table" participants in action on the MCPS website showing the creation of the MCPS Operating Budget. However, there is no mention of Board of Education members at the Operating Budget table, and no Board members are seen in the video.
Why are our elected representatives not at the table deciding what is to be funded and what is to be cut in the annual public school budget? We elected you to represent us and instead the vast majority of Montgomery County parents and citizens have NO representation at the MCPS Operating Budget creation table. Unless parents and citizens are a member of a union or one of the 18% of parents that are members of a PTA, Montgomery County parents and citizens have no representation at the table where the MCPS Operating Budget is created.
II. Illegal Curricular Fees - Where is the Board of Education?
Parents have also lost their representation in the discussion of the illegal curricular fees that are being imposed in our local schools. At the January 9, 2009, joint Board committee meeting we learned that the Board of Education would not be deciding what fees should be charged and what fees should be eliminated. Instead, the new rules will be created and set by Superintendent Weast. The new rules include a clause that if anyone challenges a fee, the fee can be waived without any paperwork or procedure for validation of need. Thereby anyone who knows to request a waiver of an illegal curricular fee will be granted a waiver.
The Maryland Attorney General has said, "we are safe in saying that anything directly related to a school's curriculum must be available to all without charge". Parents that know what the Attorney General has said will know they cannot be charged for curriculum related items. Only families that do not know the law will be left to pay illegal curricular fees. As a Baltimore education advocate commented to me, this amounts to taxing the ignorant. Only those that are ignorant of the law will be paying illegal curricular fees.
III. Outdoor Education - Where is the Board of Education?
Again, the question is where is the Board of Education with regard to Outdoor Education? Parents are constantly paying illegal fees for that event. On May 11, 2004, the Board of Education voted to set the fee for Outdoor Education at $76 effective July 1, 2004. But local schools are free to charge parents any amount they choose and parents are none the wiser. When parents are billed $85 for Outdoor Education they assume and trust that this is the fee set by the Board of Education. Those that are ignorant of the law have no idea that the Board of Education actually set the fee at $76. Further, parents are often ignorant of the fact that Outdoor Education is an optional activity and not curriculum based.
IV. BusRadio - Where was the Board of Education?
In December we saw yet another example of the Board of Education absent from a decision when it was revealed that MCPS had contracted with a company that piped in pre-recorded music and advertisements directed at children on MCPS buses. The Board of Education and Superintendent had been notified about the use of this product in November, but still no Board members spoke up to inquire about the use of this product during subsequent Board meetings. What else is going on in our schools that had not been approved by the Board of Education?
It is time for the elected Board of Education members to take seats at the Budget table on behalf of all of the unrepresented families and students, and participate in the budget and policy decisions that impact MCPS students.
Janis Zink Sartucci
Parents' Coalition, member
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Rosanne A. Hurwitz
Before the Montgomery County Board of Education
On the MCPS Proposed Operating Budget for FY 2010
January 14, 2009
Good evening. My name is Rosanne Hurwitz. I am a parent of two children, a resident of Rockville Maryland and a founding member of the Parents Coalition. Thank you for this opportunity to address the issue of the Montgomery County Operating Budget.
The first time I testified before the Board of Education was in April, 2001. The subject was the math curriculum, and math textbooks. At the time, those of us involved thought we had won the battle when we began to see math textbooks in classrooms around the county. What we didn’t realize was that we also needed to specify who picks up the tab for these curricular expenses.
Tonight, I bring to you what I hope is the last appearance of the Blair HS Gym Towel. In this budget, and as noted in a memo last week from Dr. Weast, the BOE has finally acknowledged that expenditures for curricular items, including textbooks and this towel, are the responsibility of the school system and not parents. I welcome additional information and look forward to those amendments to the budget that will bring MCPS practice in line with the state mandate for a free public education.
I am concerned, however, whether the current budget in its proposed and amended form, will provide our children with the necessary materials they need for their education. Is the $1.5 million dollars sufficient? I can’t tell by reading the budget for two reasons: 1. The budget does not include curricular fees as a source of income/revenue to the school, so it is impossible to determine the dollar figures needed to replace the curricular fees if eliminated; and 2. We don’t have an accounting of what these fees really purchased. The Operating Budget needs to specifically provide for curricular items, such as textbooks and supplies, in a manner that the taxpaying public can comprehend.
The Maryland State Constitution and statutory authority clearly provide for a free public education, with textbooks and materials of instruction available to students free of charge. The terms are entitled to their plain meaning. We all know what a textbook is, and by now we are sufficiently familiar with online resources to identify electronic textbooks - to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart - we know what it is when we see it. The categorization that some materials, like workbooks, owl eyes, and chicken wings, become the property of the student and thus the costs should be borne by the families is without merit. Whether consumed in a cooking lab or dissected in a biology lab, a chicken wing by any other name is still a chicken wing.
It is time for the Board of Education and the school system to face its obligations, make appropriate provisions to use the money they are allocated, obey the law, and fund those curricular items that are an integral part of the school program. The school system can not claim that it is justified by a tough economy. You can’t rob a bank merely because you are short of funds and want to go out to eat. If the law needs to be changed, change it, but don’t break it and hope no one will notice. Parents throughout Montgomery County teach their children to be law abiding and moral citizens; we expect no less of the public servants in charge of our school system.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
For Immediate Release
Returning Free Public Schools to
The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County is pleased that today Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is acknowledging the outrageous burden placed upon families by the charging of curricular fees for many classes in our public schools. In today's announcement, MCPS recognizes that these fees were applied inconsistently and that local public schools were profiting from charges for required instructional materials. Furthermore, these assessments involved items integral to the curriculum and were clearly prohibited by the Maryland State Constitution's guarantee of a system of "Free Public Schools".
The impact of today's announcement by the MCPS Superintendent, Jerry Weast, will have state-wide implications. MCPS represents the largest and most diverse school system in the state and other
The Parents' Coalition is pleased with what appears to be a 70% reduction in curricular fees. At the same time, we plan to review the Superintendent's memorandum and the remaining fee list. We will seek additional legal advice concerning the application of the revised charges consistent with the State Constitution, as necessary. Additionally, we will continue to advocate for inclusion of all school fees within the operating budget of our school system in order for these funds to be covered under existing legislative oversight requirements.
The Parents' Coalition wishes to thank its hundreds of members, and many local and statewide supporters for their long standing effort to end onerous and illegal school fees in Montgomery County Public Schools.