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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 16, 2006

All public schools under fiscal scrutiny

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

The state Department of Education has launched a system-wide review of how public schools manage their money in the wake of a highly critical audit of financial mismanagement at Kailua High School.

The DOE is even considering future surprise school audits by its staff as part of the review.

"If we continue to get these kinds of audits, we as a system aren't doing our jobs," said James Brese, the department's recently hired chief financial officer, at a briefing of a Board of Education committee yesterday.

"It's a systemic problem," Brese said. "DOE support wasn't effective."

Board member Maggie Cox, a former principal, agreed. "We're blaming people for what's been going on for a lot of years," she said. "When a principal walks into a school, he or she doesn't know if it's in a mess. When I walked out of my school no one knew if I walked out with my desk."

Board members said schools lack the staff to handle finances.

For example, Cox said, there is so much for a secretary to do that keeping track of a school's inventory is usually the last priority. "If there aren't enough people to get the work done, something goes and it's usually inventory," she said.

SPARSE STAFFING

Board member Denise Matsumoto called on the department to look at getting staffing levels for clerks fully funded by the Legislature to give schools the clerical help they need.

But board member Mary Cochran noted that sparse staffing is one of the unintended consequences of the weighted student formula. Generally, each school has a single secretary, regardless of its size, and in the future, schools will determine their own needs in this as in other areas.

Brese, who heads the new Office of Fiscal Services, told the board the Kailua audit has been a "wake-up call" for all schools to get their financial houses in order.

"We don't want to point fingers at Kailua," said Brese, adding the department has an ongoing effort to see how all schools can be helped to streamline difficult budgeting procedures and improve staffing issues.

In the first-ever audit of a public school, state auditor Marion Higa's office documented fiscal management issues at Kailua High. It also highlighted concerns over the hiring of coaches. The department has given the school a month to develop a plan to fix things.

Also under consideration as part of the department's system-wide improvement plan:

  • Hiring enough staff in school offices to do the work.

  • Working with the community college system to develop a certification program or refresher courses for school secretaries and account clerks.

  • Establishing monitoring reports so schools can review their spending.

  • Streamlining or automating inventory procedure for schools.

  • Increasing training for school administrative staff, especially in new budgeting processes that are part of the weighted student formula system.

    Principal Ruth Silberstein of Palolo Elementary said the department's new actions are a step in the right direction.

    "We have all been trying to clarify our systems to make it better and more effective and I think we all find there's so much involved that we want it simplified, clarified and effective."

    Silberstein said that principals are being held accountable, and are having to handle so much everything from finances, personnel, teaching, instruction, curriculum and facilities to parents.

    "We all know the seriousness of accountability and we all have been trying to take hold of what we need to and yet there is just so much coming at us."

    NO CAUSE FOR FEAR

    Higa's audit also found that the Kailua High athletic department hired coaches with criminal backgrounds, and failed to complete timely background checks on all coaches.

    The department is now verifying that all coaches in the school system have had appropriate background evaluations.

    Board members wanted to make it clear yesterday that they, too, are not pointing fingers at the Kailua staff, or the principal.

    And board member Breene Harimoto said that audits should not be a cause for fear.

    "They're a valuable service that helps point out problems so they can get better.

    "We're not on a witch hunt," he said. "All of the issues are systemic and have been going on for a long time. The principal need not fear. This is a strong statement of supporting our staff."

    Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.