Thursday, July 28, 2005


The good news is, Nebraska’s school spending has wavered just a few dollars above or below the national average for the past 30 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The bad news is, like the national average, Nebraska’s spending per pupil has increased an incredible 900 percent in that time frame.

Nebraska’s spending per pupil has gone from $833 in fiscal year 1971, to $7,547 in fiscal 2002. Figures are in raw dollars, not adjusted for inflation. Take a gander:


Gee whiz. Do teachers make nine times as much money now as they did then? Do pencils cost nine times what they used to? Do books? Does electricity? Bus gas? Pull-down maps?

If not, then what’s fueling that increase? A lot of people say it’s interactions between corporate vendors and school administrators, who are nowhere near as “watchdogged” financially as other important public officials such as mayors and state senators. Lobbying and persuasion by school vendors may be ratcheting up the cost of K-12 education far more than inflation or true academic need.

As we watch the “Battle of the Superintendents” in Omaha going on -- the poohbah of the state’s largest school district, the Omaha Public Schools, trying to take over the districts ruled by the lesser suburban poohbahs -- you have to consider self-interest along with all the other motivations in this battle.

Money and power, power and money. That’s what drives most people, including most people in public education, all too often.

It’s not only job security for the superintendents that’s at stake. When you puzzle through how a big school district like OPS can think it’s OK to drop a quarter of a million dollars on laptops for fourth-graders in the utter absence of any evidence that it will help them learn better, there’s really no other explanation than that somehow, the decision-makers were “greased” by the technology vendors.

You know: junkets, golf games, lavish dinners, theater tickets, jobs for the superintendent’s family and friends . . . maybe nothing that’s downright unethical, but certainly giving the appearance sometimes of a conflict of interest.

School officials are ripe for schmoozing by corporate vendors because the school budgets they control are in the multi-billions of dollars, all told. And that ain’t hay.

Is it happening in Nebraska? You tell me. It’s happening all over, and here are a few other examples in today’s column.

What’s the answer? Any time human beings and money mix, there’s going to be fandango. Nobody can reasonably hope to contain it all. But we’d make a darn good start by holding school administrators – especially superintendents -- and school-board members accountable for financial decisions the way we do with other public officials.

We really should strengthen our disclosure requirements and reporting about public records of their campaign donations, gifts, favors, expense accounts, compensation packages and retirement deals.

It’s about time we got some sunshine on school spending – and we might be able to dry up some of this flooding.


How Vendors ‘Grease’ School Officials

Q. Our superintendent’s best friend works for a finance firm. He volunteered as the head of a citizens committee to whip up support for a multi-million dollar bond issue which the superintendent really wanted. It passed. Then his firm got to handle the bonds and made beaucoup bucks. How much do “sweetheart deals” affect school spending decisions, and how can the public stop this sort of thing?

Most states have competitive bidding requirements, of course, and most require public officials to report campaign contributions and gifts over a certain amount.

But there are so many gray areas, ethically, that it’s difficult to gauge how widespread influence peddling really is.

Is a superintendent’s weekend golf outing to resort location paid for by a law firm whose client wants to do real estate business with the school district a proper move?

Is a night out on the town with spouses – a lavish dinner and theater tickets -- with the owner of a construction company, a friend of the superintendent, OK even if there’s a contract coming out on a new school building?

How about accepting favors like free snow removal at your home, free magazine subscriptions, or free office supplies?

The rule is supposed to be that there should be no personal benefit to a school official for interactions with vendors and potential vendors. The ultimate benefit is supposed to be “for the kids.”

But consider what’s gone on recently in Dallas alone:

-- Dallas Independent School District trustee Ron Price was reported as receiving just three political donations last year totaling $25,000, all from three closely associated computer contractors, including one who gave the district's top technology boss years' worth of free sea-fishing trips and use of a 59-foot yacht. One donor was Frankie Wong, president and chief executive of Micro System Enterprises of Houston. That firm is the head company in a consortium that will reap more than 96 percent of federal technology grants that the Dallas district has applied for – $369 million in all. Price, who chaired the committee that heard the technology proposals, has said he doesn’t know any of the three individuals who made the donations, according to the Dallas Morning News.

-- Dr. Mike Moses, superintendent of the Dallas district and former state commissioner of education for Texas, was revealed to be “moonlighting” with a Texas law firm, Bracewell & Patterson, being paid a consulting fee to help find a new superintendent for another school district. At the time, Moses was the highest-paid superintendent in Texas, among the highest-paid anywhere, making $337,500 plus perks last year, according to Texas education activist Donna Garner. He has said he was paid in the “tens of thousands” of dollars by the law firm. The law firm had contracts with the Dallas district worth more than $700,000, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Homework: There’s a good article on ethics from the American Association of School Administrators,

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