Audit's findings add to DOE misgivings


POSTED: Thursday, February 26, 2009

When the Department of Education took over management of public school facilities, it might have bitten off more than it could chew.

Audits of the department's procurement and contracting practices found not only loose attention to rules by employees and officials, but incidents of possible fraud and other illegalities - serious allegations that should be investigated.

Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto has acknowledged the problems and has asked for a probe by the attorney general. She and the Board of Education should make clear to department employees that what the audits labeled a “;culture of disregard”; for regulations will not be tolerated.

The public already has misgivings about the $2.4 billion school system's ability to efficiently and competently fultill the education needs of students. The department will be further damaged by questions about its financial transactions.

In 2005, DOE officials were given the authority to manage facilities' construction, designs and maintenance. The idea was to streamline projects that often had been slowed by bureaucratic roadblocks because they were handled by another state department.

The audits uncovered instances in which credit cards issued to faculty and staff were used for improper purchases and, in some cases, transferred for use to unauthorized persons. The audits also found several incidents in which checks were issued, then held, for projects or purchases yet to be completed because the funds for them were about to lapse. The practice, however well-intended, was deceptive and made contractors complicit.

Of even more concern were instances in which procurement laws were ignored, contract awards appeared to have been manipulated, potential contractors were provided with information that gave them an advantage when bidding for a job and contracts were steered toward former department officials. In one case, a former principal who had no construction experience was pushed for a consultant's job in that field.

Also disturbing was that officials involved seemed to have little concern about fiddling with the rules and misrepresenting their actions, suggesting there was a careless atmosphere about money in the department.

While that might have not been prevalent, the audits found numerous projects that went over budget, missing documentation for contracts and attempts to falsify paperwork.

Some of the incidents were efforts to get needed projects done quickly, without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

However arduous the procedures, procurement laws are in place to lessen the likelihood and opportunities for misusing taxpayer dollars. Education administrators, like other state officials, are required to follow the rules.