The head of Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union is urging state Auditor General Timothy DeFoor to immediately rethink his decision to close the school audit bureau in his department.
DeFoor announced on Wednesday he was transferring the responsibility for conducting public school audits to the state Department of Education on April 22. He said those audits are an education department responsibility that his agency took on 30 years ago and can no longer perform because of short- staffing and budget cuts.
Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey blasted the move in a letter to DeFoor sent Thursday.
“This irresponsible action will effectively end any organized, state-level audits of the commonwealth’s public schools on April 22, with no plan for any other state government department or agency to assume this critical function,” Askey said.
He noted the education department lacks the staffing capacity to take on this work. The auditor general had as many as 120 auditors performing it in 2013. Today, that number is down to 46 auditors, all of whom were told their jobs are being eliminated.
“Even though the professionals who manage the financial resources of Pennsylvania’s public schools are qualified and responsible stewards of this funding, the need to review the use of the taxpayer dollars their schools receive is fundamental to ensuring that the public has confidence in them and the decisions they make about how to spend public funds,” Askey stated.
Education department officials have yet to offer a reaction to the auditor general’s decision.
A spokeswoman for the auditor general said there seems to be a misunderstanding about the types of school audits that auditor general’s office was doing.
“We were not doing fiscal audits of school districts,” spokeswoman April Hutcheson said. “Those audits are being done by independent CPA firms hired by the school boards to audit their funding.”
Rather, she said its auditors performed compliance audits such as making sure districts properly counted the number of students it transported and submitting it correctly to the education department for reimbursement, whether they were performing fire drills, and ensuring they had the correct teacher certifications or bus driver certifications on file.
She said the auditor general will continue to conduct certain performance audits of school districts. The auditor general, for example, notified 12 school districts last month of its plans to conduct performance audits for their compliance with the laws pertaining to district fund balances.
In his letter, Askey faulted DeFoor for failing to notify lawmakers during budget hearings about his plan to shift this responsibility to the education department “so this could be addressed as part of the state budget.”
“Unless you reverse your decision, it is unclear who will perform them, how they will be performed, or when, if ever, they will be done,” he wrote. “Responsible governance requires forethought and planning. Your decision to end audits of public school entities shows evidence of neither.”
Hutcheson said the auditor general’s office had several conversations with the education department about how the school audits it performed ideally should be done every three years but that due to staffing issues, that audit cycle would have to be extended to at least seven years.
The audits “were becoming ineffective and we need to be able to use those auditors to do other work,” she said.
The teachers union president wasn’t the only one who was critical of the auditor general’s decision.
Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb also released a statement on Thursday calling it “an attack on Pennsylvania’s public education system as charter schools will continue to deplete the resources of districts across the state without a check on their fiduciary responsibility to students and taxpayers.
“Make no mistake about it: There is now no independent oversight of the 500 public school districts or 179 charter schools and cyber charter schools in the state,” Lamb said.
He went on to call on state lawmakers to swiftly pass a law mandating the auditor general to perform the audits and provide funding to boost staffing to handle it. He also called on the lawmakers to act to allow local auditing authorities, such as his office, to have full access to the public schools within their jurisdiction.
Jan Murphy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.