This is beyond incompetence. This is the deliberate squandering of the public trust.
That was just the beginning. By the time Chromy and the district’s auditors finished digging, they would find at least $14 million in overspending during the 2013-’14 and 2014-’15 school years alone — on everything from salaries and benefits to teacher training and technology — and questionable practices dating to at least 2007.
By the summer of 2016, it appeared that West Allis-West Milwaukee had accomplished what at least one state auditor said he had never seen before: In the course of a decade, the suburban Milwaukee district, one of the state’s largest, had blown through $17.5 million in reserves and posted a $2.1 million deficit.
It takes a lot of bad decisions to get into this financial state. Here are just a few:
The district offices complex, which the board is now selling to a developer, was supposed to pay for itself and generate additional revenue. Instead, it only added to the losses. Initially, tenants generated more than $800,000 annually. But over time, most have moved on and the rental space is largely vacant.
In addition to the big-ticket items, the district overspent its budgets on dozens of accounts between 2013-’14 and 2014-’15 alone, often by staggering amounts: $3.7 million in overruns for salaries and benefits, $146,000 for teacher training, $786,700 for technology; and $671,738 for a soccer complex board members say they thought was entirely grant-funded.
Some expenses have drawn state and federal scrutiny. Last year, auditors at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction were called in to assist the U.S. Department of Education, which had raised concerns about West Allis-West Milwaukee’s handling of three federal grants. In the end, the district agreed to return $73,000 of the $1.6 million it received to federal officials.
And, of course, now the same school district who squandered the taxpayers’ money for a decade wants the taxpayers to pay more to fix their mismanagement. If the taxpayers refuse, the district will cut popular educational offerings.
In April, it will ask taxpayers in its modest communities to authorize an additional $12.5 million — or about $290 per student each year — beyond what they already pay in taxes for operating costs over the next five years.
Without the referendum, Superintendent Marty Lexmond says, the district may be forced to cut programs such as art and music and shelve ideas for new ones — a language-immersion school, for example, or a next-generation high school — that are designed to keep families in the district.
This school district is like the deadbeat brother-in-law who keeps borrowing money for get rich quick schemes. He’s always broke, but this time – THIS TIME IT WILL WORK! The root of the problem is in the last phrase of this excerpt:
Sources have suggested a litany of possible factors: the opaque accounting system and lack of routine monitoring of expenditures; a top-down administration in which then-Superintendent Wachholz was the nearly exclusive conduit of information for the board; annual audits devoid of red flags until 2014-’15; and the failure of school board members to exercise adequate oversight.
Yes, the school board. Far too many school board members take their financial responsibilities lightly. They don’t ask the hard questions or demand to see the numbers behind the PowerPoint presentations. Or perhaps worse, they are complicit in the fleecing of the taxpayers because it’s “for the children.”
There is a lesson here for Wisconsin voters as they consider the candidates in the school board elections taking place all over Wisconsin in April.