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August 25, 2005

Down The Rat Hole? – Part Two

John W. Ashbury

The Board of Education of Frederick County is under fire from several directions – as it should be. These seven elected officials have numerous problems, some of their making and others fostered upon them. Yesterday we reviewed the salary issue, particularly as it pertains to the superintendent and the administrators and supervisory personnel.

We learned recently that the federal government is auditing 20 Maryland school districts – including Frederick County – to determine if Medicaid funds, provided to benefit special education students, have been spent properly.

No accusations were made against any of the school systems. But after a previous review of such records covering only one year in six Maryland school districts, the Department of Health and Human Services demanded a $19.9 million reimbursement, $12.2 from the Baltimore school system alone. This time they want the records for a four-year period.

According to an article in Baltimore’s Sun: “The affected systems will be required to produce a huge amount of paperwork, including copies of contracts, providers’ certification records, documentation that a child needed a particular service, documentation that a service was provided, and documentation of how much a provider was paid.”

Even if FCPS has followed all the rules pertaining to its use of Medicaid funds to provide services to special education students, it will cost taxpayers thousands of dollars just to comply with the requirements of the audit.

Wanna bet who’s gonna be asked to pony up the extra money to the BOE to pay for this expense?

Next comes the question of the inability of the school system’s self-insurance fund to sustain itself without millions of extra dollars being pumped into it outside the budget cycle. Even now there is a growing controversy over just where FCPS staff used the money the county commissioners provided to reduce the red ink in that insurance fund in previous years.

Some think it went into the general fund of FCPS and was spent on things other than the insurance fund’s shortfall. It has been documented that when a couple million dollars was provided to reduce the deficit, FCPS used the money to purchase school buses. Others think the money was used to subsidize the premiums paid by FCPS employees – to keep them lower than they should be, thus effectively increasing employee salaries.

Premiums paid by FCPS employees have not risen as fast as the cost of medical care and prescriptions. And because most employees are represented by a union, it is a sticky point in negotiations each and every year.

It seems that once money is provided to FCPS, the Board of Education can spend it in any fashion or manner it chooses. A change may be in the offing.

Back during the administration of J. Anita Stup as president of the county commissioners, a conscious decision was made to give the BOE a lump sum of money rather than designating exactly were it could be spent.

It worked this way. The commissioners told the BOE how much money they would provide. Then the BOE would come back and tell the commissioners how much they wanted designated – from all revenue sources including federal, state, and local – in each of 15 categories. Then the commissioners would approve the allocations in those categories. The state requires this little charade.

What is supposed to happen is that when the BOE needed to transfer money from one category to another, they had to come before the commissioners and ask for permission. Rarely was the transfer denied – unless some shenanigans were uncovered. And of late, that had happened much too frequently.

There was the case where a transfer was sought, but before it was approved, FCPS staff signed a contract for some new equipment that wasn’t to be mentioned in the request for the transfer. The commissioners learned of this and problems developed – as might be expected.

For another example of how negligent the Board of Education can be, and how much they rely on staff, just look at the milk contract that was recently approved.

County Commissioner Mike Cady, liaison to the BOE, asked that the approval of a consent agenda item be withdrawn because he had some questions. The item was the bid for milk for our school children.

According to Mr. Cady, under the terms of the bid approved by the Board of Education, milk will cost $556,167 this school year, and the dairy will deliver the milk to the Hayward Road warehouse. However, if FCPS picks up the milk at the processing plant, the bid was $426,263, saving the taxpayers almost $130,000.

With both bids, our school system would have to deliver the milk to the individual schools along with the other food products.

But FCPS staff suggested the higher bid and the BOE approved the bid as recommended.

Since Mr. Cady questioned it, the BOE is now reviewing its decision and is likely to reverse its vote at its next meeting.

All of these things lie outside the realm of “educating the children.” If things are this bad outside the classroom, but within the purview of the BOE, what can we expect is going on inside the classroom?

Squandering money always seems to be the primary objective of FCPS. With a budget in excess of $350 million, someone needs to keep an eye on what is happening. Even when the commissioners offered several years ago to fund a complete audit of the school system finances and how money is allocated and spent, the Board of Education and FCPS staff rejected the idea.

The crocodile tears that flush Winchester Hall at budget time every year are a disgrace. FCPS and the BOE always say that they can’t possibly do their job without all the money they requested in their proposed budget; then when the commissioners allocate less than requested, the job still gets done. The FCPS staff and the BOE get along nicely, thank you very much.

And you wonder why your tax bill is so high.

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