Schools need more help with money matters
An audit of Kailua High raises concerns about whether public schools are prepared to handle their financial functions.
REINVENTING education, as the state Legislature hoped to accomplish with a 2004 law, is proving to be difficult as public school administrators and officials struggle to change the tack of an unwieldy ship.
While the plan's centerpiece -- to direct more funds to classrooms and students -- is worthy, education officials have put that on temporary hold, unable to come up with a formula that distributes money without harming individual school operations.
Adding to that obstacle, a report by the state auditor last week raises questions about whether schools are adequately prepared to deal with their financial affairs.
Auditor Marion Higa noted that the review of a single school, Kailua High, doesn't necessarily mean all schools face the same problems. However, Kailua's situation indicates that others may be similarly troubled.
The audit found the school's lax financial habits led to an inability to account for $500,000 in equipment and funds, particularly money raised by its athletic department. Moreover, the report noted that past practices could impede improvements to the school's management.
Though some of the problems are due to Department of Education "too onerous" rules, Higa said, there also is "a culture that says it's OK not to keep good track of assets."
This is especially troubling since the Reinventing Education Act directs control of the bulk of a school's funding to its principal. At Kailua, the audit noted, the principal yielded most cash functions to one employee while clerical office staff largely managed the school's $10 million budget.
When the law was passed, the department recognized that transferring funding decisions to school administrators would require they receive training and help from financial experts and has provided some of that. But the audit said guidance, training and planning have been insufficient and inadequate for effective management, adding that principals already have heavy workloads, overseeing curriculum, operations, staff and teachers.
The audit was specifically critical of the school's athletic department. Funds raised for athletics were commingled with personal funds, often not deposited into school accounts while salary allocations for coaches were used for other purposes. It also faulted the school for hiring coaches without criminal background checks being completed, putting student safety at risk. This should not be allowed to continue.
The audit's description of systemic shortcomings echoes previous criticism of a department weighed by bureaucracy and disinclined to change. It is a condition that will negate the goals of the education law in which so much hope for improvement has been placed.