By Brittany Clingen
As the FBI investigation continues and questions regarding who is to blame linger, the St. Joseph School District is trying to rebuild and move on after being rocked by a scandal that spanned at least 14 years and saw up to $40 million illegally distributed in the form of unapproved stipends. Ballotpedia reached out to education experts in an attempt to provide context for what transpired in St. Joe and determine how other school districts can avoid similar debacles.
Those familiar with the story expressed dismay at the egregious nature of the corruption in the Missouri school district that serves over 10,000 students. "A $40 million misuse of funds is very severe," said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems (CRSS), which offers expertise, analysis and training to school district governance teams with the goal of improving student achievement. She noted it was especially concerning given the fact this practice occurred over a significant period of time.
Ballotpedia covers the largest 1,000 school districts in the country under the leadership of Daniel Anderson, Ballotpedia’s Local Desk Editor. "St. Joseph obviously isn’t the only school district in America where something unethical or illegal took place," Anderson said. "However, what really differentiates the St. Joseph school district from other school districts is the size, scope and duration of corruption."
Anderson emphasized that, in his time covering school districts, he has never encountered any situation quite like the one in St. Joe. "When we see stories about corruption or misspent funds, it’s usually a district official or administrator using the expense account a little too much. A few thousand dollars here or there [...] living it up at really nice hotels for conferences and all of that. When you get into millions and millions of dollars over the course of a decade, we don’t have anything comparable for that."
There is disagreement among experts as to whether corruption within school districts is a widespread issue. On the one hand, Mincberg stated that instances of corruption are infrequent, saying, "This problem is very rare. There are over 15,000 school districts in the U.S. If this occurs in a few districts, you can see that, bad as it is, it is not common."
Conversely, James Shuls expressed concern that financial mismanagement in school districts is pervasive. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a distinguished fellow of education policy at the Missouri-based Show-Me Institute, a free-market research and educational organization.
Shuls cited several audits that have been conducted in various Missouri school districts, saying, "There have been a number of other audits of school districts that haven't been as bad as the St. Joseph audit, but they always find something. Every single audit finds something's wrong. Board members and administrators are doing things that are not quite right. That is very common in schools throughout the state. If audits were more common, I don't know if you'd find many examples quite like this, but I guarantee if you dig into almost any school's finances, you're going to find some measure of impropriety - whether intentional or not - where money is not being handled in a way we would want it to be handled."
Empirically, it's hard to say how prevalent corruption and misconduct are within school districts, notably because—as was the case for so long in St. Joseph—citizens may not even be aware that it is occurring. "We have found [...] that when someone wants to defraud you, it is extremely hard to find. Usually a whistleblower uncovers it," said Mincberg.
In a 2007 report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice entitled Disruptive Behavior, researchers attempted to codify instances of misconduct in public versus private schools. In the 12 states that permitted school choice at the time, the researchers found a total of 814 cases of misconduct in public schools from November 2000 to October 2005, compared to 69 instances in private schools over the same period. "You won’t know for certain in your community whether [public officials are performing their duties honestly] unless you do demand transparency and accountability," said Anderson.
Increased transparency is the inexorable battle cry of seemingly everyone hoping to see reform in the education system. "The first responsibility you have as a public official is to remember that it is not your money. You’re spending somebody else’s money. And so, making that as open and transparent as possible is a first key," said Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), which, among other endeavors, works to strengthen state leadership in educational policymaking.
In the case of St. Joe, Amundson said, "It is going to be critically important that some combination of the state legislature and the state board of education, probably working together, develop clear standards and policies and procedures that ensure that the financial transactions at school districts across Missouri are completely open and transparent to the public."
St. Joseph school district building
Shuls is another champion for increasing transparency in public education: "School finance is so opaque that the public has very little information. We get to see the big numbers at the end of the day, but it’s very difficult for patrons of a school district to really get granular data and information about how money’s being spent in a school district. And so that just makes it hard for citizens to stay engaged and to really follow what their school district is doing."
He also believes school administrators and board members should receive more training so they know the right questions to ask regarding school finances. Shuls and Patrick Tuohey, his colleague at the Show-Me institute, contend it is imperative that school boards act as financial stewards within a district. "School boards aren’t seen as the watchdog of the administration but as sort of a partner to them or a partner to the district," said Shuls. "Their fiduciary role as an elected board member is to really oversee the finances of the district. And too often I think that they don’t recognize that that’s their primary responsibility and [...] they come in and they just accept whatever it is that the school officials are telling them."
Ultimately, the experts are hopeful that the scandal in St. Joe will serve as a warning for other school districts and a call to action for citizens and taxpayers. "We spend so much money on education. And to find out that such a large percentage of it is being misspent, should make people stand up and pay attention," said Tuohey. "Everyone buys into that 'for the children' rhetoric. My fear is that you can get away with anything. As long as it’s spending money for the children, how dare anybody question you? Well, St. Joe shows us that we could be doing even more for the children if we paid attention to the books."
- ↑ CRSS, "Meet our Team," accessed April 23, 2015
- ↑ CRSS, "Homepage," accessed April 29, 2015
- ↑ Show-Me Institute, "James V. Shuls, Ph.D.," accessed April 23, 2015
- ↑ Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, "Disruptive Behavior: An Empirical Evaluation of School Misconduct and Market Accountability," June 2007
- ↑ NASBE, "Our Staff," accessed April 23, 2015
- ↑ NASBE, "About NASBE," accessed April 27, 2015
- ↑ Show-Me Institute, "Patrick Tuohey," accessed April 23, 2015