Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently uncovered $2.5 million improperly paid to nine public charter schools. At issue is whether buildings owned by charter schools are eligible for the state's lease reimbursement program.
But in the scrutiny rightly given to these payments, are we missing an even bigger issue?
According to DePasquale:
The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s [PDE] own guidelines for the lease reimbursement are clear that buildings owned by the charter school are not eligible. The problem is that PDE makes no effort to verify ownership of the buildings or look for conflicts of interest between the school and related parties. They simply write a check for whatever amount the charter school submits. That is a disservice to Pennsylvania students and taxpayers.
Jan Murphy of PennLive adds:
Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he believes this dispute comes down to a difference of interpretation of the state's lease reimbursement guidelines.
“The auditor general takes the position if the building is owned by a charter school then it's not reimbursable and PDE says ownership is irrelevant to reimbursement,” he said. “I'm sure charters are working based on the recommendation from their legal counsel plus direction from PDE.”
DePasquale acknowledged that charter schools were not at fault for applying for reimbursement but he said the education department was wrong in making those payments.
To correct the mistake, the Department of Education could claw-back improper payments. State lawmakers could also pass legislation clarifying the state’s reimbursement guidelines.
But DePasquale’s audit should raise a more important question: Is state government doing everything it can to maximize the value of each dollar spent on public education?
After all, this is not the first time the Auditor General has uncovered examples of wasteful education spending. In May, for example, DePasquale estimated districts could save nearly $55 million if they made use of competitive bidding for transportation services.
There are numerous other ways for districts to save money. CF has long championed prevailing wage reform (and other mandate relief), pension reform, and collective bargaining transparency to ensure taxpayer funds are directed to the classroom, where they belong.
These, too, must be top priorities for lawmakers and public officials who seek to maximize the value of each education dollar.