Indian River Goes On The Defense In Reaction To Anti-Referendum Ads

Indian River has a referendum coming on November 22nd.  Before that happens, the Delaware Auditor of Accounts office will issue an audit inspection report.  A citizen in the district paid for ads in the Sussex County Post with allegations against the district and how they are spending money.  In response, Indian River Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting, Board President Charles Bireley and Board Vice-President Rodney Layfield submitted a letter to the editor at the Sussex County Post.

Many of the ads attacking the referendum and the response from the district center around the former Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Miller.  Miller resigned earlier this year without any public knowledge of the events which led to his resignation.  He was put on paid administrative leave the month prior.

As a result of the letter from the district, there is some clarity around the hiring of Miller in Indian River:

It should be noted that Mr. Miller was hired by the Indian River School District in September 1998, approximately six weeks before the state auditor’s office began its investigation of Brandywine’s finances. The final auditor’s report was not issued until September 2000 and Mr. Miller’s criminal case was not adjudicated until November 2000, more than two years after he was hired by IRSD.

As it turns out, the district is claiming they requested an audit, even though no prior audit report suggested a problem:

The public should know that the district requested the audit that is currently being conducted by the state auditor’s office. This request was made based upon information received in April by the administration and Board of Education. Therefore, any accusation of a “cover up” is unfounded, misleading and unfair.

One item in the letter puzzled me greatly.

The district is committed to being a good steward of our taxpayers’ dollars. This is evident in the property tax reductions implemented by our Board of Education during the past three years.

If the district knew they had all these future costs coming and a student population growing by leaps and bounds, why would they lower property taxes?  Were these for things like tuition tax or because prior referenda increases ran out?  For example, the capital costs for a school building do not last forever.  Eventually those increases end.  If that is the case with Indian River, it doesn’t show the board just deciding to lower taxes but rather they are following what was naturally supposed to happen.

While I have posted what amounts to rumors (although told to me by many different people not associated with each other) regarding Miller, I will wait to see what the audit investigation reports.  I believe that when taxpayer dollars are at stake in the operation of a school district which has over 10,000 students in it, the privacy of one employee should not be given greater weight than everyone else involved in the district.  There needs to be some type of legislation allowing a school district or board of education to release information when something happens that triggers an investigation from the auditor’s office.  When there is very little transparency surrounding serious issues, especially during a referendum campaign, the public needs to know exactly what is going on.  If this were a charter school, they would be forced to reveal what is going on through a formal review process.  We need that type of mechanism for our local school districts as well.

Big Issues In Indian River: Upcoming Referendum, Pending Audit Inspection, Federal Discrimination Lawsuit, and A Shrinking Budget

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The Indian River School District has seen better times.  While the embattled district faces an upcoming referendum in November, they must also contend with a huge influx of new students, a discrimination lawsuit, a budget that cannot handle itself, and an audit coming out this month from the Delaware Auditor of Accounts office.  Hopefully the last will answer the question of what their former Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller was up to.  As I reported last month, sources contacted me under anonymity that Miller somehow absconded with millions of dollars in his time as CFO of the district.

Coastal Point reported on September 23rd that Indian River is not the only school district under review by the state Auditor’s office.  But, as usual, they are not ponying up any details.  I get that, but at the same time it gives them the capability of making things disappear when things get too hot in the kitchen, like the charter school petty cash audit.

“We like doing these things quietly (and make the announcement) when we’re done and we have a report for the public, so there’s not speculation out there,” Wagner said. “People get into wild speculations, and we try to avoid all that.”

On November 22nd, the district will attempt an operating expense referendum, as detailed on their website:

The district is proposing a tax increase of 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The measure will raise $7,350,000 in additional local revenue. The average district taxpayer will see an increase of $95.41 in his or her annual property tax bill.

But Coastal Point indicates this may not be the only referendum the school will ask for this school year:

More students means less space for each, so IRSD is working with the Department of Education to potentially build new schools and classrooms. That could possibly mean another referendum in the spring of 2017, for major capital improvement (to build new schools) and current expenses (if more money is needed for continuing costs).

Taxpayers in the district, especially elderly ones, are not going to like the proposition of two tax increases in less than a year.  In the Coastal Point article, Delaware State Auditor Tom Wagner indicated the investigative audit against Indian River School District will most likely be released to the district first for them to review.  After that it will be released to the public.  Will it come out before the November 22nd referendum?  That could be important for many reasons.  If the audit comes back finding something bad, and it comes out before the referendum, that could cause voters to vote no.  If it comes out after, taxpayers will say they felt cheated.  As well, a post-referendum release could assure a failure of the potential 2nd referendum vote next spring.

The district was very clear about the ramifications of a failed referendum on November 22nd:

If the referendum is not approved by voters, the district could face cuts to school safety, a significant reduction in staff due to an inability to meet payroll, larger class sizes, further discretionary budget cuts, the loss of staff to other school districts and inadequate instructional supplies and materials.

But financial issues are not the only crisis in the district.  There is also the matter of what happened earlier this week.  On Tuesday, October 4th, it was publicly announced the Coalition for Education Reform filed a federal lawsuit against Indian River.  Their allegations claim the district sent a disproportionate number of African-American students to an alternative special education school called the George Washington Carver Academy.  According to Randall Chase with WDEL 101.7FM:

The Coalition for Education Reform claimed that the district is using the George Washington Carver Academy, a special education school, as a “punitive dumping ground” for black students branded as “troublemakers.”  The group says black students are being removed from mainstream schools and sent to Carver in disproportionate numbers on flimsy pretexts and for arbitrary periods of time, while their educational needs are neglected.

As a parent of a special needs child, I can’t even begin to express how much this concerns me.  Shuffling off any students to different schools over discipline issues has become the quick Band-Aid for many Delaware school districts.  And some charter schools either expel the student or counsel them out.  While a federal lawsuit may not play out for a long time, I have to wonder if the district knew this was coming and is beginning to look at this in future budgets should they lose.

It looks like the Christina School District is not the only district in the state facing an avalanche of issues all at once.

 

Will Indian River School District Need A State Bailout?

Indian River has NO monthly financial statements, budgets, nothing showing ANY money whatsoever on their website.  Way to be transparent!  Hard to look for your yearly budgets with no information.  What are you hiding?  How much money did Miller mess with in the finances?  Is the state going to have to bail you guys out?  Why are teachers being told not to plug in anything that isn’t normally plugged in inside the classrooms?

I’m hearing Miller absconded with a ton of money, up to $14-15 million according to some.  Where is the transparency on this issue?  That is some very serious coin.  How can we trust Indian River to safeguard student data in the BRINC empire when the district can’t even safeguard their own money?  Oh wait, I’m sorry, the taxpayers money.  This is going to make any district financial meltdown in the past look like Romper Room.

Why is Bunting making this seem like some ordinary hiccup on the news?  This is the problem in Delaware.  Too many figures in power who think the people don’t need to know the truth.  Too many legislators who think they are the last point of transparency.  Not this time.  Come clean Indian River so we can all see what’s going on.  If the state winds up bailing you guys out we all pay the price for that one.  Better to tell the truth now than face the wrath of the entire state.

The fact that all your financial information is missing does not bode well for this district.  I have to wonder… when this district knew what happened in Brandywine with Patrick Miller, why would they hire a financial guy who basically plea bargained his way out of criminal charges?  Delaware deserves better than this.

Updated, 8:18am:  This is being referred to as Millergate around Sussex County and Indian River School District.  It’s not looking good the district will be able to make payroll going into October.  This is NOT good folks.

 

Indian River Cuts $3 Million From Budget But No Audit Released Yet On Patrick Miller’s Activities…Hmmm…

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Indian River School District just cut $3 million from their budget earlier this week.  Where will these cuts come from?  Dani Bozzini with WMDT has the answer:

And with more students means more teachers. The district wasn’t getting enough funding to continue the same allocation of their schools budgets so they made some changes.

Instead of cutting teachers and staff’s salaries, the district decided to cut the discretionary part of the budget. The District office was cut by 50 percent and the schools’ budgets by 30 percent.

Here’s the thing though… most traditional school districts don’t cut their budget unless they are having some type of financial problem.  If a school district grows, the property taxes collected for local funds, as well as state and federal funds should compensate for that.  The district’s Chief Financial Officer was put on paid administrative leave in April and then he was able to retire in May.  The State Auditor’s office also began an investigation into the district’s finances.  No report has come out from the Auditor of Account’s office concerning Indian River School District.

I believe the school district should own up to whatever Miller is suspected of doing.  This isn’t the first time mysterious financial issues have come up with him.  He plea bargained his way out of something similar in Brandywine eighteen years ago.

I love how Superintendent Susan Bunting makes it sound so casual in the article with WMDT.

Dr. Bunting tells 47 ABC that students or parents won’t see much of any changes and it’s just little cutbacks to help with their growing population.

Yeah, okay.  You don’t cut $3 million out of your budget unless you are having some serious issues.  Now I have to start looking into Indian River too.  I don’t have time for this.  Just come clean Bunting!  Between charter-district payments, ESSA, being the non-paid watchdog for the Delaware DOE, elections, and everything else, can you just email me and show me what is really wrong with your budget?  That would be super!  Cause if what I’m hearing is true, you guys are going to have to come up with some new spin next month.  I’ll give you a few days, but then I’m getting the shovel out.

Or does this have anything to do with the charter-district payments?  How many students does Indian River send to Sussex Academy?  When did the CFO get put on administrative leave again?  April?  Hmm…

How many inspections are going on with schools over at Tom Wagner’s office?  Time to bring Kathleen Davies back Tom.  You can’t handle all this work!

Four Delaware School Districts On The BrINC Of Massive Data Sharing

I’ve been meaning to write about this consortium for a while now, but other matters kept pushing it to the side.  BrINC stands for Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vo-Tech and Colonial, the four school districts that are part of the BrINC Consortium.  What is BrINC?  It is a massive personalized learning initiative.  And they are using the very same company that has hundreds of other companies under its data sharing umbrella.  The Delaware Department of Education and Rodel love this little group.  Rodel especially has been pushing personalized learning for a couple years now.  I can see why.  It’s a cash cow for education technology companies.  Especially IMS Global Learning Consortium who delivers all these wonderful toys to BRINC.  Think of IMS as a big huge cloud.  It houses all the data, and members pay a hefty fee to be a part of that cloud.  But it looks like Indian River School District, a member of IMS’ elite group of hundreds of other companies, school districts and universities, pays the bills to IMS.

Indian River loves the DOE, and the DOE loves them.  New Delaware State Board of Education member Nina Bunting said at their State Board Retreat last month “When the DOE says jump, we say how high.”  Current Superintendent Susan Bunting was in the running for Mark Murphy’s slot a few years ago.  So that leaves the other three districts: Brandywine, Colonial and New Castle County Vo-Tech.  Brandywine’s Mark Holodick has been hypnotized by the Vision Coalition (Rodel), Governor Markell loves the NCC Vo-Tech schools like Howard High School, and Colonial…things are fairly quiet with them.  Although I do like Colonial’s Superintendent.  Anyone who tells the DOE he wishes he could just “blow it up” when talking about the DOE’s school report card fiasco is okay in my book!  They don’t make a lot of noise.  Not like Christina and Red Clay.  Just think of the geography with this.  All the Wilmington school districts that aren’t a large part of the redistricting efforts and the biggest tourist area in the state.

To see what BrINC is all about, read their grant application below: