By Jackie Burrell
Friday, January 25th, 2008 at 1:43 pm in Schools.
Fiery headlines are coming out of the massive Mt. Diablo School District. First, the district’s teachers issued a no-confidence vote in superintendent Gary McHenry. Then, two board members called for McHenry’s resignation, citing fiscal mismanagement, ongoing payroll errors (more on why that’s important in a moment), and a morale crisis so severe, some of the district’s highest ranking schools are trying to secede. McHenry’s acerbic response: “Let’s negotiate the terms of the buyout, and I can move on. I don’t need to be subject to public ridicule.” The usual trustee triumvirate – Mayo, Treece and Allen – are offering the embattled supe their support.
Meanwhile, discussion boards are lighting up as outraged readers, teachers and parents duke it out online. According to a Times online poll, 71 percent of the 525 people who have responded so far said McHenry needs to go – and 51 percent said they didn’t care what it cost.
So why are payroll errors a big deal? Eighty percent or more of a school district’s budget is payroll, so in Mt. Diablo’s case, you’re talking about an automated system that controls 80 percent of a $286 million budget. It cuts checks and mails them out automatically. Consistent payroll errors mean the system isn’t quite sure who’s on the payroll or how much they make, but it’s mailing the money anyway. Problem? You tell us… But back in 2005, when the state’s fiscal crisis management team rode to the rescue, auditors said that was one of the seven conditions they’d found in every school district that had gone belly-up or required an emergency loan.
Flash forward three years, and the district is still grappling with payroll errors. Controversial finance chief Gloria Gamblin is out on leave and has no plans to return (and McHenry does not plan to replace her until June, long after a new budget must be crafted). The district is facing a $1.3 million fine because it didn’t do its teacher certification paperwork on time. The teachers union is livid over a still-unsettled contract. And massive layoffs are in the offing. A recent custodial layoff , for example, met with great dismay from board member Gary Eberhart, the guy we’re going to start calling “The Board’s Conscience,” because the layoff included personnel who disinfect schools where cases of antibiotic-resistant staph infections have been found.
And the board continues to split 3-2 (Mayo, Allen, Treece vs. The Conscience and Paul Strange) over a multitude of other troubling issues, including McHenry’s $5 million payout to a law firm according to a handshake agreement the board never approved and for which it never held public hearings – a clear violation of California law, which insists upon public oversight of tax dollars.
So, it’s with considerable chagrin that we watch Mayo, Treece and Allen support McHenry by pointing to test score increases and the blue ribbon awards reaped by some schools. That credit belongs to the hard working teachers and principals, the devoted parents, and the wonderful children who did their best by filling in bubbles on state-mandated tests … despite administrators whose failure to get paperwork in on time will cost the district $1.3 million – the equivalent of more than 20 teachers’ salaries, or seven teams of those staph-fighting custodians.
Harrumph… OK, enough on Mt. D. In other school headlines, Antioch’s trustees gave high school choristers the go-ahead to travel to Hawaii for a prestigious choral competition this spring. San Ramon is looking for a new superintendent. West Contra school leaders have decided to keep Castro Elementary open through next year. And Livermore’s high schools are moving to the trimester system.
And in New York, school teachers are being graded on how well their students do on standardized tests – information that could be used for tenure decisions, performance reviews and even public oversight down the road. Your thoughts?