February 20, 2015

Shock and Audit: St. Joseph School District Out Tens of Millions Because of Staff “Stipends”

Missouri has seen its share of boondoggles. To name a few in recent years, Moberly was taken in on a $39 million sucralose scam that downgraded the city’s credit rating, left bondholders hanging, and resulted in jail time for one of the masterminds. In Kansas City, officials had to settle with a developer for millions over the failed Citadel redevelopment project, which saw criminal prosecutions of its own.

Now enters the St. Joseph School District. As reported by the St. Joseph News-Press:

“We went back about eight years and found there was over $25 million worth of stipends either not approved, unauthorized or improper. That $25 million worth of stipends is what we found to be problematic,” [State Auditor Tom Schweich] told the crowd inside the Oak Grove Elementary School commons area.

Since there was not full documentation going back further than 2001, Mr. Schweich added, that number could be in excess of $40 million paid out in stipends over that period.

“That is a startling amount of money,” he said, followed by a collective groan from the audience.

“Startling” is an understatement. The questionable stipends account for, on average, over $3 million each of the last eight years that could have gone toward substantive and proper investments in the education of St. Joseph’s children. Instead, according to the News-Press, it appears the money went to a wide array of cronyistic efforts,

including $45 for a Sam’s Club membership for [Superintendent Dr. Fred] Czerwonka, $1,500 for a painting for [Chief Operating Officer Rick] Hartigan’s office and $7,650 in free Internet service for 16 individuals, including an individual the district claimed they did not know.

In the auditor’s words, the stipends operated much like a “slush fund.” Throw in $3.4 million in overpayments from the state to the district because of inaccurate reporting and a swath of closed district meetings that should have been open to the public, and you have the makings of a full-blown scandal in northwest Missouri. It remains to be seen whether criminal action will be taken in the matter, but that seems to be very much on the table at this point.

Frequent readers of this blog know about our positions on transparency (for) and cronyism (against), so I won’t belabor those policy prescriptions in light of the district’s failures. The sheer magnitude of the district’s blackbox behavior is a better argument for vigilance and reform of state and local government than my words alone could offer.

It also goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that “per pupil spending” remains a meaningless statistic, a fact emphasized here. How much you spend “on” a student doesn’t matter if the line items are $1,500 on administrators’ art, rather than $1,500 on the art department.

And yes, there will be many important story lines that will be worth talking about as the district’s actions are fully vetted, but one story line that has to remain front and center is how shameful it is that it took more than a decade for these problems to fully come to light—and the risk that St. Joseph’s scandal is just the canary in the coal mine statewide. That this school district was insulated so long from critical oversight makes me wonder whether similar behaviors might be taking place in one of the other 519 districts (!) in the state . . . and we simply don’t know it yet.

More to the point: If Missouri’s school districts are going to tell the state they have funding problems, then it’s fair for the state and the taxpayers to take a fresh look at how each district spends, or misspends, the state’s tax dollars. That is especially true in light of St. Joseph’s present troubles.

Education funding should be for the children, not for the districts, and it’s time district books were cracked open and thoroughly reviewed. For the state to deliver a quality education for our kids, it needs to hold every district accountable not only to stop problems like this from happening again, but also to ensure that they’re still not happening someplace else.

February 19, 2015

Transparency Would Shine Some Light

The essence of a well-functioning democracy includes transparency and a right to information. When fire protection boards, such as the O’Fallon Fire Protection District, make crucial decisions in closed-door meetings, they are violating a critical tenet of democracy.

file0001605429169Former Fire Chief Mike Ballmann, who claims that the firefighters union pressured the board to fire him, believes that the union has overstepped its role in the affairs of the fire district. When asked about union involvement in the management of the fire district, Ballmann said that the Fire Protection District Board of Directors was “packed with union people so the shop gets what it wants without any grief.” With the union’s heavy involvement in deciding who will run for the board positions, has the government union overstepped its role?

Since the district is funded by taxpayers, its business should be conducted with the interest of the taxpayer in mind. However, when board meetings are closed, interested taxpayers do not get to see how government unions involve themselves in district affairs. Furthermore, according to Ballmann, there are instances when the union shop steward is invited into the closed board meeting, which not even fire chiefs are allowed to attend. The problem isn’t the existence of a union, but rather their conspicuous control over the fire protection district.

The obvious and sensible solution is for fire districts like O’Fallon to follow in the footsteps of the Monarch Fire Protection District and initiate an open collective bargaining process. This would make sure that any changes made to district operations, union contracts, and decisions to hire or fire employees are free from ambiguity. However, despite efforts to gain the O’Fallon Fire Protection District Board’s insight on this issue, the inner workings of the district seem as ambiguous as ever.

Taxpayers are aware of the great importance firefighters play in protecting their community; their concern, rather, lies in the fact that their fire district is lacking representative leadership and sufficient oversight. Transparency is essential to guarantee that the taxpayer interests are being met. Once open collective bargaining becomes the norm for all government unions, we can ensure that both the worker and the taxpayer are being represented and considered in the political process.

February 16, 2015

Balance Through Transparency – Part 3

I previously wrote about the problems with overly adversarial government labor relations. This wasn’t to say that a cozy relationship between government and government unions is always a good thing either.

Fox-HenAnother firefighter I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, seemed to think the situation in the Saint Louis region was much worse. He told me that at more than one fire protection district the board routinely asks shop stewards for permission to make personnel decisions. According to him, the union packs fire district boards and management positions with people who answer to the union, which, in effect, gives the union control over the management.

Undoubtedly, the union representing firefighters in Saint Louis County, IAFF Local 2665, has another perspective to contribute. It has not yet responded to any of my requests for comment, but I believe there are multiple sides to this story, and I look forward to hearing from them.

It can be tricky to find the right balance in government labor relations. On the one hand, industrial strife leaves citizens dependent on, and paying for, shoddy government services. On the other hand, too cozy a relationship between a government and a government union yields a “fox in the henhouse” situation, where taxpayers get fleeced by a private entity with exclusive control of a government entity. The trick is to find balance. And the best way to achieve balance is to open up the process to the public and let Brandeis’s policeman sort things out.

February 14, 2015

Balance Through Transparency – Part 2

In writing about how increased transparency can help improve government labor relations, I thought it might be useful to illustrate two ways government labor relations can become problematic. The first situation is one where the relationship between a government union and government becomes toxic, making it hard for government employees to deliver public services.

David Richard, a former fire captain and union member in Saint Louis County, told me that somewhere along the line the collective bargaining process became “infected.”

Tug-of-war“The union became radical,” David told me. David believes a firefighters union can serve a good purpose, but the situation in many districts has become too adversarial. “The district needs a dialogue, a common ground.” And with the infected relationship between management and the union, ordinary procedures, such as employee review, are compromised.

“I was torn between my duties as a captain and my duties as a good union member,” David said of the employee review process. As a captain, he had the duty to review employees, but as a union member, he had a duty to protect his fellow union members. As the union became more militant, it became increasingly difficult for him to play both roles.

What’s the big deal? People complain about their union being too radical or too soft all the time.

The difference here is that we’re talking about our government.

If a traditional private-sector union is too radical and labor relations suffer, then it’s only a private company that suffers. It’s bad for employees and owners of that company, but society as a whole can always buy Toyotas instead of Fords. If government labor relations suffer, then citizens serviced by and paying for that government entity are stuck with the consequences.

More on this to follow…

February 13, 2015

Finding Balance Through Transparency

One of the biggest issues in public policy today has to do with the collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, that are negotiated between some government unions and the government entities that employ union labor. These agreements can have huge implications for our communities’ future budgets and, ultimately, our tax levels.

That’s why recent, troubling news out of Saint Louis County should concern anyone interested in good, effective, and financially secure government. I’ve spoken to a number of firefighters in Saint Louis County recently, and the stories I’m hearing are not good: self-dealing, intimidation, fire district board members using bulletproof vests in their meetings. Something has gone awry.

In response to this strife, some fire districts are trying something new. At Monarch Fire Protection District, instead of holding collective bargaining meetings behind closed doors, the board has decided to open up the process to the public, as Missouri’s Sunshine Law requires them to do with most other meetings. So far the results have been promising.

So why isn’t this already standard practice with government collective bargaining? After all, collective bargaining meetings are deliberative processes where public officials set public policy, including employee compensation, work rules, and grievance procedures.

BrandeislMissouri Sunshine Law (a.k.a. Open Meetings and Records Law) provides that public government bodies may close meetings, records, and votes to the extent they relate to a negotiated contract until that contract is executed or all proposals are rejected. Hence, government bodies close collective bargaining sessions with government unions under the theory that collective bargaining is a contract negotiation.

Collective bargaining is a contract negotiation of sorts, but it is not the same as contracting with an outside firm. Collective bargaining is a negotiation between staff and management over internal operations. Because policy can be set in these bargaining sessions, exempting government collective bargaining from the Sunshine Law is a mistake, especially when the public is concerned about labor relations at a government entity upon which they depend.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote,

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Expanding the scope of Missouri’s transparency laws to cover collective bargaining meetings and access to government records would be one good way to alleviate the labor relations problems we’re seeing in the public sector.

February 11, 2015

How to Ensure Springfield Teachers’ Voices Are Heard

In many school districts, teachers are left out of the collective bargaining process simply because they do not belong to the right teachers association. Recertification elections can give these teachers a voice by requiring an association that acts as the exclusive representative to periodically run for reelection in order to maintain this privileged status.

A good illustration of this problem can be found in Springfield, Missouri. Springfield School District has long had teachers represented by both the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA). In 2010, MNEA won an election awarding it the privilege to be the exclusive representative for teachers in collective bargaining sessions with the district. This meant that MNEA, and only MNEA, could negotiate with the district on behalf of the teachers.

Your_Vote_Counts_BadgeWhen MNEA excluded nonmembers from discussions on whether to ratify the new union contract, MSTA sued. And lost. As the exclusive representative, MNEA is free to represent workers the way it sees fit. It does not have to include members of a rival union in its deliberation process.

Still, this may not seem very fair to a longtime MSTA member who only recently lost her ability to participate in internal school district politics because of the exclusive representative election. But with recertification elections, her voice can be heard even if her teachers association is not currently the exclusive representative.

With recertification elections, in order for an association to continue to act as the only association able to negotiate on behalf of employees, that association must be re-elected every couple of years. This would prevent an association from winning an election once, and then representing employees for years after the association has lost most of its supporters. It also would empower employees who belong to another association, because the exclusive representative would either have to do a good job of representing everyone’s interests or risk being voted out of office and replaced with a competitor.

Recertification elections are a lot like American democracy where a new party can be put in control of Congress every two years. Congress is by no means a perfect institution, but by requiring our representatives to stand for regular elections, we ensure some level of accountability. Teachers who feel that they don’t have a say in negotiations with their employer, such as MSTA members in Springfield, should clamor for recertification elections. It may be one of the best policy reforms we have that preserves existing rights while empowering workers to hold their representatives accountable.

February 10, 2015

Illinois Makes Union Fees Voluntary for Government Workers

illYesterday, the governor of Illinois signed an executive order making union fees voluntary for government employees. Government unions are likely to challenge the order, but it is a significant gain for workers who do not want to pay for representation by an association to which they do not belong.

Why doesn’t Missouri follow suit? In our state, government workers, such as police and firefighters, are often required to pay for union activity, whether or not they want to be a member of a union. Many police and firefighters in this situation gladly accept representation by their union and would be happy to pay voluntarily. However, the government should not force workers to pay for services they don’t want.

Sometimes workers end up paying for two unions at the same time. In Saint Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) has mostly represented white police officers, while the Ethical Society of Police has historically acted for African-American police. Recently, SLPOA won a union contract that allowed it to force payments from all rank-and-file officers. This action forced members of the Ethical Society to choose between leaving the employee association that they wanted to represent them or paying dues to two unions at once.

Illinois’ new order is a serious gain for liberty. Missouri could enact similar reforms. Indeed, doing so would protect the rights of police and firefighters who do not want to be forced into paying for the services of a group that they haven’t voted for and don’t want as representatives. For those government workers who protect us, it’s the least we can do.

January 22, 2015

Open Collective Bargaining at Monarch

Firefighter Turnouts-Gear Rack
In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.

With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.

One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.

“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.

According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.

No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.

Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.

Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

November 27, 2014

We Are Thankful for Transparency

There has been a lot of talk lately about transparency, especially the notion that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” according to an architect of the president’s health care law. Last year, we wrote that we’re thankful for data, and that remains true.

Tied to our love of data is the assumption that government is transparent enough to provide it to us. Citizens of the Show-Me State should expect no less. And in that regard, Missouri is doing okay. In 1973, the state legislature adopted our Sunshine Law, making Missouri one of the first states to adopt such an open meetings law. The law in part reads:

It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.

In 2009 the Blunt administration sought for, and the legislature provided, the implementation of the Missouri Accountability Portal, and the Nixon administration has maintained it. The website allows users “a single point of reference to review how their money is being spent and other pertinent information related to the enforcement of government programs.” Though limited in scope and sometimes difficult to navigate, this site has been good for transparency in Missouri, helping keep citizens informed and the government responsive.

We’ll leave it to others to argue about the intelligence of voters or the political expediency of openness. But here in Missouri we’re grateful for the transparency we have and the data it yields.

November 14, 2014

Vail Lifted from Teacher Collective Bargaining Negotiations in Colorado

Colorado voters said YES to Proposition 104 last week at a ratio of 7 to 3. The ballot initiative will open collective bargaining negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards to the public. Supporters say the new law will bring transparency to local government, allowing parents and taxpayers a look into what teachers’ unions ask for during negotiations.

Should Missouri pursue similar reform?

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Many existing agreements can be viewed on Show-Me Sunshine. Here are just a few of the hundreds of items teachers and school boards have bargained for:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Sick days
  • Student behavior
  • Parent communication
  • Amount of time a parent may spend in the classroom
  • Paid release days for union activity
  • Hiring policies

Parents may not be aware of the restrictiveness of some of these contracts. A study by USC Associate Professor Katharine Strunk found that in school districts with more union power school boards had less flexibility in decision making. This is unnerving, as school board members are elected by citizens; teachers’ unions are not.

Perhaps if Missouri’s Sunshine Law was expanded to include collective negotiations, school boards would be less likely to give in to cumbersome demands in the presence of taxpayers and parents. In the absence of a collaborative policy, this would bring parents and taxpayers a step closer to having a place at the bargaining table.

October 15, 2014

Ain’t No Sunshine: What’s Going On Behind Government’s Closed Doors?

This month, the Missouri State Auditor’s office released a report on state and local government compliance with Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law requires government bodies to keep meetings open to the public, provides procedures and safeguards when a meeting needs to be held in private, and imposes other requirements on government bodies to ensure transparency. According to the auditor’s report, state agencies and local governments across the state are not complying with these laws.

The report includes numerous violations of public records and public meeting requirements. The following government bodies failed to abide by the proper procedure for making meetings closed to the public:

capital

  • Gentry County
  • City of Savannah
  • Ste. Genevieve County
  • City of Liberal
  • Southern Dallas County Fire Protection District
  • Daviess County
  • City of Brentwood
  • Department of Public Safety/State Emergency Management Agency
  • City of Buckner
  • City of Diamond
  • Cedar County
  • Caldwell County
  • McDonald County
  • Lake Lotawana Community Improvement District
  • Vernon County
  • Montgomery County
  • Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners
  • Clark County
  • Stone County
  • The School District of Springfield, R-XII
  • Monarch Fire Protection District
  • Natural Resources/Soil and Water Conservation Program
  • Higher Education/Southeast Missouri State University
  • Madison County

Most of the government bodies that failed to keep meetings open were cities and counties, but some of these bodies, including the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, the Department of Public Safety/State Emergency Management Agency, and the Southern Dallas County Fire Protection District, are charged with ensuring public safety. The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, for example, failed to comply with the provisions of Missouri law that require a body in a closed meeting to properly document issues discussed, to discuss only authorized topics during the closed meeting, and to properly disclose the final disposition of matters discussed in closed sessions.

Government bodies have the power to deprive us of life, liberty, and property. They are charged with providing public safety and education services that Missourians depend on. They are given the power to extract payment for these services whether an individual wants them or not. The open government requirements of Missouri’s Sunshine Law are essential safeguards against abuse of government power.

April 11, 2014

Tell Taxpayers Where Their Money Is Going

On Thursday, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., disclosed that the city is ponying up another $65,000 to woo the 2016 Republican convention. Jackson Co., Mo., Wyandotte Co./Kansas City, Kan., and Johnson Co., Kan., also are chipping in an additional $65,000 each. This $260,000 total is in addition to the $100,000 that Kansas City, Mo., already spent. We participated in a KSHB TV story about the spending and asserted that taxpayers ought to be told what is being promised in their name.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James argued that hosting the convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he may be correct. Certainly, we all are proud of Kansas City and eager to show off on the 40th anniversary of the last time we hosted. Those are arguments for spending the money — they are not arguments for not telling taxpayers how the money is being spent. If the mayor is so confident about his choices, there is no reason to hide who is getting the money and for what. Furthermore, taxpayers ought to know what additional commitments the city is making to the convention committee. Remember, the $165,000 spent so far is just for the bid to host. Hosting itself will cost millions.

The city claims that the convention will have a large economic impact. We previously have written that those estimates are largely useless as they assume that without the convention there would be no economic activity — which is just silly. The city’s “fact sheet” suggests the economic impact to Kansas City would be similar to Tampa’s in 2012: $214 million. The city likely is getting that from a Tampa Tribune story in which they cited a University of Tampa analysis:

The total impact takes in $214 million in direct spending by the groups that put on the convention, including the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the City of Tampa, the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and corporate sponsors.

Note that in addition to ignoring any economic activity that would have happened without the convention, this impact includes spending from Tampa’s taxpayers.

Lastly, it was gratifying to read in their “fact sheet” that the city thinks we have sufficient hotel rooms and bus service to accommodate the convention, and that our airport has more than 50 direct flights. Let’s hope city officials remember this the next time they advocate committing public funds to convention hotels, streetcars, and new airport terminals.

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