Muscogee County School Board argues about reporting of superintendent’s spending

Checkbook register online refers to the movement to empower people to scrutinize and oversee government by asking that government agencies post their checkbook registers online in an easily accessible and searchable format. However, many government agencies do not welcome that kind of scrutiny.

The Muscogee County School District (MCSD) doesn’t seem to be any different. The MCSD school board is split on whether or not to provide that level of transparency as Mark Rice with the Mucogee Ledger – Enquirer reports.

MARK RICE
mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

Four months after originally trying to get his proposal approved, District 2 representative John Thomas finally got the Muscogee County School Board to vote on his request for a new policy concerning the superintendent’s spending.

And it failed by a 3-4-1 vote Monday night.

Thomas’ proposal asked for all financial transactions approved by the superintendent without the board’s consent to be “prominently featured” on a new page on the district’s website. His proposed policy states that the report shall include the transaction’s date, the name of the entity receiving the payment, the purpose of the expenditure, the amount and the person(s) who authorized it.

Board policy allows the superintendent to authorize without board approval any contract for public works construction that doesn’t exceed $50,000 and any other school district purpose if the expenditure doesn’t exceed $15,000. Those thresholds are lifted in case of an emergency, defined in the board’s policy as “an eventuality, which cannot reasonably be foreseen and which if not corrected immediately will result in harm to people or property or in economic loss to the school system, or in substantial disruption of the instructional program.”

Although the Oct. 19 agenda item’s cover sheet contains the specificity Thomas requested in his proposal, the actual documents the board approved turned the wording into a more vague commitment. The agenda item also turned his request for a new policy into amendments to three existing policies.

Thomas tried to withdraw his proposal during the Oct. 19 meeting, but his effort failed 3-6, with Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8 supporting him. Then in a 5-3-1 vote, the board approved the altered version of Thomas’ proposal, which Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voted against. Naomi Buckner of District 4 abstained.

Monday night’s vote split the same way, with Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voting yes and Buckner abstaining.

While administrators and board members asked for specifics about how detailed the “purpose” of the transaction should be, Myers interpreted those questions as “a bunch of clutter to try to stop this thing again.”

Superintendent David Lewis: “No, I’m trying to …”

Myers: “No, sir, again, please don’t interrupt me. That gets real old. I am so tired of people trying to throw up obstacles to transparency. This ain’t your school system, friends. This school system belongs to the people. Everybody can read. The same policy that’s on there tonight is on the agenda three months ago.”

Although that September meeting had Thomas’ proposal on the agenda, it mistakenly was listed as an action item. The board ended up not voting on it then because the proposal had to wait another month since it is a policy change. And between the September and October meetings, the wording in Thomas’ proposal mysteriously was changed. So by the time it was voted on in October, Thomas tried to get it withdrawn.

It all started back in August, when the board, in a 3-6 vote, defeated Thomas’ proposal to reduce from $15,000 to $5,000 for the limit to the superintendent’s authority to spend without the board’s consent. Myers and Cantrell sided with Thomas.

Within that August proposal was Thomas’ call for the superintendent’s expenditures to be posted on the district’s website. Thomas brought back that part as a separate proposal for the next meeting.

So the board has passed what Thomas and Myers contend is a watered-down version of the proposal’s original intent, and this time the board’s majority is pushing them for more specifics. For example, Buckner said, the administration needs to know whether a purchase of paper should be listed as “paper” or the type of paper.

Lewis said the distinction matters so his administration could follow the policy.

Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 insisted all the information already is available on the district’s website. Thomas and Myers, however, argue it isn’t in a form for the public to readily access and easily understand.

“What you’re going to have is called a data dump,” Myers aid.

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