The Politics of Money: “We Got Plenty o’ Transparency, So Zip It,” Says School Board Treasurer
In Sunday’s AnnArbor.com paper, AAPS Board Treasurer Randy Friedman had this to say about the notion that school finances are being mismanaged, and that the district’s finances are not transparent enough to the taxpayers who foot the bills:
“…Friedman said…people were misled and didn’t understand the district’s finances. They [WISD millage opponents] said there needed to be more transparency. I’m sorry. There’s plenty of transparency and transparency doesn’t pay teachers.”
That’s not exactly true, if you think about it. The opposition to the WISD millage charged that the AAPS finances were far from transparent. This argument obviously resonated with voters who then went to the polls and voted down the millage. Thus, it would be fair, perhaps, to say that transparency would indeed have paid teachers, administrators, the electric bills, to have the lawns mowed in summer, and the sidewalks plowed in winter. Friedman’s response, in fact, is shocking in its hubris. Ann Arbor Board of Education Trustee (and Treasurer) Friedman’s response demonstrates exactly what happens when people in charge for years (Friedman was elected as a trustee to the school board in 2002) get completely entrenched and assume that everyone knows what’s what and who’s who.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the Ann Arbor electorate is a bunch of class pinheads concerning the school district’s finances, and they don’t understand the finances at all. The issue, then, is that Randy Freidman and his fellow trustees, along with the Superintendent Dr. Todd Roberts (and his merry band of fiscal services workers) need to stand on their heads, jump through flaming hoops and explain (like taxpayers are all five-year-olds) exactly where every district dollar goes, and why. Someone needs to tell Trustee Randy Friedman that educating the masses is a tough job, Laddy Buck. Then again, so’s working a 50-hour a week job to pay property taxes to foot the school district’s bills.
That’s why taxpayers get to ask as many really irritating questions about the district’s finances as they want, and we get to ask the same question 5,000 times. We get to not understand even though, to the Randy Friedmans of the world, dammit, we should understand. We get to be stupid and pig-headed. We get to be suspicious and freaked out that $190,000,000 dollars a year is burning a hole in the pocket of Superintendent Todd Roberts’s Armani suit. Friedman’s response, in short, is an indicator of why the millage was destined to fail. It took real cojones to ask for a tax hike in the midst of the Great Recession, and even more cojones to do it after years of running a deficit with one hand, and handing out pay raises and step raises to teachers with the other hand. Is it any wonder taxpayers were confused about AAPS District finances?
Let me be a class nerd and point out that Friedman is one of the same people who recently negotiated a “pay freeze” for the AAPS teachers that included, well, raises. Step raises. Not real raises. Get it? Giving out only a step wage increase is really a pay freeze. District officials inked a contract that called for the distribution of $5 million dollars in step increases, but told the Press, and Ann Arbor parents that the teachers’ salaries were frozen. In short, Ann Arbor’s Board of Education members were able to mislead taxpayers, because most taxpayers don’t understand the District’s finances, nor does the average non-unionized worker understand the concept of a “step” raise. It’s a raise that rewards worker longevity. The majority of the non-unionized workers in the United States (some 75 percent of U.S. workers) don’t get raises for just hanging around until they reach the top of the negotiated salary scale.
In the “pay freeze” caper, a little misunderstanding of the district’s finances suited those who signed that labor agreement just fine. That is until the millage opponents came along and had the audacity to point out that in the midst of a budget deficit, and while asking for a huge tax hike, the AAPS trustees signed a contract that raised teacher pay. The AAPS has been in deficit for half a dozen years, and every year the School Board has negotiated with the teachers’ union to give salary increases, as well as step increases.
So, is Friedman right? Is there plenty of transparency? Maybe if the AAPS were a covert branch of the CIA you’d call the financial information district officials and the Board of Education make available to taxpayers “transparency.”
The 2009-2010 budget on the AAPS web site was scanned in and then posted as a PDF. Sloppy work. The 116 page scanned document isn’t searchable, and it’s difficult to read. Evidently, no one at the Balas Building has an Excel spreadsheet that could have been saved as a PDF file. Previous year’s budgets? They’re sitting on someone’s hard drive over at the Balas Building, instead of archived on the AAPS’s web site. How about posting the district’s check registry online?
According to the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy, there is a long list of Michigan school districts that allow parents to view, online, the districts’ check registries, including the Troy School District, as well as the Bloomfield Hills Schools. The AAPS has a mountain of financial data that is poured over, massaged, trimmed, clipped and viewed obsessively by the 15 full-time fiscal services employees, all done on a modest budget of $1.8 million dollars. Looked at another way, it costs taxpayers a little under one percent of the total $190,000,000 budget to have 15 people count the money and pay the bills. Comparing the 12,229 student Troy School District budget to the 16,421 student AAPS District budget is a revelation. The budgets for every elementary, middle and high school in the Troy District are included and broken out. In the AAPS budget, all spending is lumped together.
There is absolutely no reason why the only financial data posted to the AAPS web site is a blurry copy of the 2009-2010 budget. There should be monthly financial statements, as well as the district’s check registry. The AAPS should do the Troy School District one better, and post the monthly credit card statements of every AAPS District employee who is issued a credit card. Most financial information is kept in electronic format now. To refuse to share it with taxpayers is either a deliberate attempt to withhold financial information from those who pay the bills, or a shocking lack of ability on the part of the 15 people who manage the district’s finances to use simple accounting software to generate reports, data, and spreadsheets. Either way, the AAPS District’s practices make Randy Friedman look like a class clown for defending the district’s so-called “transparency.”
Furthermore, the district’s lack of fiscal transparency makes Friedman’s cuddies on the Board of Education look like the class bumpkins; have they ever bothered to take note of the plethora of financial documents made available on the web pages of other school districts in the state? Opening up the AAPS District’s books is going to elicit even more questions from taxpayers about how their money is being spent. Randy Friedman might want to get his doc to write a scrip for some valium, because if he thinks taxpayers are a pain in the butter bell when they don’t understand district finances, he’s going to need some tranquilizers to keep from having a nervous collapse when taxpayers do understand district finances.
Fortunately, I’m sure Friedman will get a great price on the pills from one of the stores in his Harvard Drug Group.
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