- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols leveled another devastating charge last week against school officials, revealing to the D.C. Council’s education panel that thousands of dollars earmarked for after-school programs had been misspent on retreats and unapproved travel. Said Mrs. Nichols: “You had at least principals and some other managers participating. No cost was spared.” Interestingly, the Office of the D.C. Auditor uncovered the misspent money while probing other publicly funded programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare.

The likelihood that school employees violated federal law looms large. Indeed, D.C. officials already have fired at least one worker involved in misappropriating after-school funds. Of the ongoing probe, Superintendent Clifford Janey gave a pat response: “We continue to cooperate with Mrs. Nichols’ office.” Regrettably, every superintendent says this; it now rings hollow.

The latest findings of school mismanagement are not new. In recent years, the auditor has released two reports of overall financial mismanagement of special education programs, and a report in which Mrs. Nichols urged school officials to make “substantial improvements” regarding Medicaid and student services. The auditor also has uncovered misspent funds for federally funded feeding programs. An audit also cited the D.C. State Education Office for misusing tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses. There were other audits, too, with each offering recommendations to curb, if not cure, the spending problems. But, as Mrs. Nichols testified, “Overall, I would say the easier recommendations have been implemented. The more difficult … have not been implemented at all.” The most blatant consequence of those failures to act led to yet another auditor’s report in 2002, a year in which after-school programs run by one D.C. agency overspent an estimated $4.7 million.

The hard work of Mrs. Nichols and her staff, and the public airings by the D.C. Council, serve little purpose if school officials repeatedly fail to obey the law, fail to implement corrective measures and fail to curb their spending appetites.

We are especially appalled that school officials’ reckless habits hurt the poor. At this juncture, we appeal to the fiscal sensibilities of Mayor Tony Williams, the D.C. Council and Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi to do the prudent thing and rein in the school budget. Their actions might, at first blush, appear to be cold-hearted. But the auditor’s string of evidentiary findings calls for belt-tightening and accountability.

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