East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members on Thursday went along in principle with the idea of hiring an outside firm to conduct an audit of both the school system’s finances and its performance.
They, however, raised many questions they want answered before voting on the idea when the board meets again March 17.
Board Vice President Barbara Freiberg proposed the idea. She wants an independent look at whether the school system is spending money and deploying staff where it should. She said she would like to move quickly in order to have the information before June when the board approves its 2015-16 budget and in time for a new superintendent whom the board plans to select April 2.
“I truly believe that this would be helpful to us,” she said.
For the past few years, the school system has had to cut tens of millions of dollars in spending annually to stay out of debt, and this year could well be more of the same.
The vote Thursday in favor of an outside audit was 6-2, with board members Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Tarvald Smith voting no. Board member Vereta Lee abstained.
Nelson-Smith said Freiberg needs to clarify what she wants.
“I have a really big problem, because I don’t know what you’re envisioning,” Nelson-Smith said.
School system staff have been given the task of coming up with draft language for a request for proposals from groups that could conduct such an audit.
Superintendent Bernard Taylor, whose contract expires June 30, said he likes the idea, noting he could have benefited from such an audit when he started in 2012. But he said he needs more direction from board members about what they want examined.
“You’re going to need specifics, because now it’s too vague,” Taylor said.
The idea for an independent audit came up during School Board elections in the fall.
A group financed by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby called Better Schools for Better Futures developed a five-point agenda for the school system that included conducting an independent audit. The organization gave thousands of dollars to candidates who endorsed that agenda, and Freiberg is one of the recipients, as are board President David Tatman, Jill Dyason and Evelyn Ware-Jackson, all incumbents, and the lone newcomer on the board, Mark Bellue.
Connie Bernard, who was not endorsed by Better Schools for Better Futures but was re-elected anyway, said she supports the audit, but wants it to hone in on the degree to which the school system is top-heavy and reveal “is there any fat in the organization to trim?”
“This is an opportunity to examine where that is true, or not true,” Bernard said.
She said she’d like to see if local business leaders interested in the idea could pay for the cost of the audit.
Taylor, however, said the board needs to look at more, specifically where it spends most of its money, if it wants to save money, and the places to go to are transportation and staffing.
“Your costs are not all over the place,” he said.
Taylor also noted an outside examination he commissioned, looking at potential savings in special education, but said he held off pressing some of the recommendations.
“They would require tough decisions that I didn’t necessarily think there was support on the board for,” he said.
Nelson-Smith focused on another area of spending to look at: payouts to charter schools.
Under questioning from Nelson-Smith, Catherine Fletcher, chief business operations officer, said the school system currently diverts about $71 million to charter schools and that will grow next fiscal year, offering $80 million as a preliminary estimate.
Tarvald Smith suggested waiting until after the board hires a new superintendent.
“I would hate to tie the hands of our new chief executive officer,” he said.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Friday, March 6, to reflect that the School Board plans to select a new superintendent on April 2.