Saturday, November 1, 2014

Disturbing lack of financial transparency on the part of the NYC Department of Education and the Panel on Educational Policy

When Bill de Blasio campaigned for Mayor, he promised to improve financial transparency and accountability, which under Bloomberg had been highly deficient.  He also promised a more independent and rigorous oversight process by the Panel for Educational Policy, which has a super-majority of Mayoral appointees.  This has yet to occur.  In certain respects, financial transparency  has actually diminished since the previous administration. Here are just some examples:
In its twice-yearly education budget briefings, the Office of Management and Budget has informed Class Size Matters that the organization, as well as other education advocates and representatives of the city’s unions, are no longer invited to attend, only government officials. 
The back-up documentation for the proposed DOE contracts to be considered by the Panel for Educational Policy used to be posted by the DOE at least a week in advance, and now are only posted the night before the Panel meeting.  This denies parents and advocates the information they need to flag questionable contracts, see what the DOE’s rationale for them may be, whether they were competitively bid, and if the vendors are under investigation or have other issues that should be addressed.   
Now, only a brief three or four page document is available in advance, with merely the names of the vendors listed, and little else.
Already, the lack of information has proven to lead to unfortunate outcomes.  Last month, the PEP approved a new contract for New Classrooms, run by Joel Rose, who developed its online instructional program called School of One while he worked at DOE.  This contract should not have been approved due to conflict of interest concerns and also the fact that it violated the terms of the previous contract. 
When Rose’s previous contract was approved in 2012, it was a no-cost contract and promised a "free and perpetual license" to DOE to be used in NYC schools.  Even then the contract was very controversial.  Now, however, his company is charging the city $200 per student for the license.  
After the PEP approved the contract, the Daily News wrote about it on October 19, with the headline: Ex-Education Department official’s $420K contract violates ethics rules, critics say. I responded to the false claims made by New Classrooms and the DOE in my blog here.
Last spring, we FOILed the DOE for the 2012-2013 audit of their spending of more than $600 million in Contract for Excellence state funds.  This audit is required each year by state law, and was due Jan. 1, 2014, according to calendar of the State Education Department. The C4E funding resulted from the settlement of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, and is meant to be spent in targeted areas and help reduce class size -- the top priority of NYC parents -- but is instead being used by DOE to supplant city spending and fill in trepeated city budget cuts to schools.  As a result, class sizes have increased every year.  On September 30, 2014, nine months after the audit was due, the DOE responded that this audit had not yet been “issued” so that “there are no responsive records to supply.”
For at least two months, the PEP contract committee had three or less members instead of the five members required by their by-laws. As far as I have heard, none of the PEP members have yet received the six hours of fiscal oversight training required by state law within a year of their appointment.
Panel members are responsible for approving many billions of dollars in city spending, and millions of dollars lavished on private vendors.  It is their duty to provide strong fiscal oversight, and not rubberstamp,  as the previous PEP did.  In so doing, their members should push for maximum transparency and accountability in the use of education funds.

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