Cash desensitization

In the last few weeks, our national discourse has been about billions — and even trillions — of dollars.

In the Oakland school district, much of the money talk hovers in the millions, or the multi-millions: the $100 million dollar emergency loan, the $20 million cuts to schools, the $435 million facilities bond.

That’s why yesterday, when I spoke with the lawyer representing Bryant & Brown and he told me that the firm had received an extra $22,000 because of duplicate bills sent to OUSD in 2007 and 2008, I understood how he could say that while it shouldn’t have happened, “In the total scheme of things, it’s relatively unimportant.”

(Note: The school district still hasn’t released its own overpayment estimate, and the law firm — which says technical problems caused it to issue duplicate invoices and that it repaid $10,000 as of yesterday — is still reviewing its bills from the years before 2007.)

But then I started asking myself how many other “relatively unimportant” amounts of money have been misspent by the school district. And how would $22,000 sound to a school principal who was hard-pressed to find the funds for copy paper, or to a teacher who spends hundreds of dollars of his own money to buy basic classroom supplies?

Do you think the people in charge — from the superintendent and state administrator to the school board members — become so used to seeing contracts in the hundreds of thousands that they become too comfortable spending this kind of money, even as they talk of the district’s precarious finances and the lack of money for employee raises?

As the district prepares to tighten its belt further, what expenditures should be given a closer look? How should OUSD improve its oversight so that erroneous payments, mistaken or otherwise, don’t happen?

image by Detour Designables, flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • former hills parent

    How can $22,000 not be important. It certainly appears that the business office needs some oversight. I know that if I spend even a dime over my budget in my school district that I would be answering questions. How much more abuse of funds has occurred at OUSD?

  • Catherine

    Our school could use the “unimportant” $22,000 to hire tutors to help our “unimportant” students who are working to catch up. Maybe then the money would be considered more “important.”

  • Jim Mordecai

    Katy I am confused. I thought the issue was why was the law firm of Bryant and Brown employed check over contracts having to do with bond construction if Oakland has an in house lawyer employed to do the job?

    Of course every penny of the taxpayers money must be spent appropriately as some of those pennies are from my property tax (Measure N seeking more of those pennies to share with corporate charter schools).

    But, I hope that billing issue will not divert attention from the question of why pay two lawyers to do the same job?

    I believe Board Member Gallo asked this question and it deserves an answer. If the answer is the in-house District lawyer can do the job more than $22,000 is being misspent.

    Katy, has this important question been answer?

    Holding the District administration feet to the fire to get an answer on why the in-house lawyer can’t fulfill the responsibility that was outsourced to Byrant and Brown regarding school bond contracts doesn’t mean that the District should not make sure that double billing is not taking place in other places.

    But, I give three cheers to the job Noel Gallo has repeatedly been insisting it makes no sense to outsource lawyer examination of contracts when there is an in-house person to do that job.

    I think Noel Gall is wrong on Measure N but right on this issue.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Katy Murphy

    Jim: I believe multiple issues are being examined by the general counsel, and that they include both things you mentioned: 1) whether the firm over-billed the district for its services, by how much, and how that happened; and 2) why the district paid these high rates for two contractors to do the facilities work, rather than having someone do it in-house — presumably, for less money.

    Both questions relate to the district’s bottom line, as well as its financial management, and I was referring to both in this blog post (or trying to, anyway).

    That being said, I don’t know the extent of the district’s investigation, or what the specific findings have been. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Oleyimen

    As Jim says the whole thing sounds
    questionable. Why is “the Oakland school district’s lead attorney is investigating allegations” happening? That makes this whole thing sound even more like office politics than a real investigation. Any party that is at question in an investigation should not be part of the team that investigates. In this case any of the districts employee counsel is a culpable party. Is this just friendly competition turned wrong, or is it genuine concern and not just the typical “covering your own”?
    Bravo! Jim on Measure N. I have spent ample time looking into the bottom line of these schools. The young people I have met and counseled from several charter schools have been done a disservice! They are not at all run as an institution of knowledge but more kin to a day care. Yes there are good charter schools in Oakland. But, the majority of the ones I have seen are ran more as a for profit than a place for less fortunate kids to get the help they so badly need to make it in this world. Someone please do the numbers. Compare them to others. Something is wrong with Oakland charter schools. Look at the ACT, SAT scores. Sadly their aren’t very many to look at. Yes. It is that bad. These children are going nowhere fast.

  • Matt R.

    I am more infuriated by Alice Spearman’s comments in your article, Katy, that tried to make the probe out to be a racial issue. Give me a break! It’s this type of thinking that mires Oakland in disfunction at all levels of governement. Alice, stop blaming others and take some personal responsibility for inappropriate behavior or get out of the service sector. You don’t help anyone with positions like that. I strongly doubt that ANYONE makes race an issue when it comes to overspending and fiscal mismanagement. It’s a money thing, nothing else.

    Matt R.

  • Tootsie

    Matt R. – The grapevine indicates that Spearman will be the next board president. This is just an indication of the circus OUSD will become if that happens.

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