Some people call Peyton Wolcott a watchdog or even a bulldog. Some within the education establishment likely call her far worse for her relentless pursuit of open and ethical government. Having convinced many ISD’s to post their check registers online, she’s now asking school trustees to make an ethics pledge.
If you’re thinking that ethics in government should go without saying, you’re absolutely right. If you take it for granted that all school districts operate within the boundaries of ethics, you are quite wrong.
The Dallas ISD, for example, has been involved in a credit card scandal in which millions of dollars were spent on questionable — if not bogus — purchases. The credit card scandal happened largely during the tenure of former superintendent Dr. Mike Moses who was moonlighting for other districts while he was the nation’s highest paid school superintendent.
The people’s representatives within the local school districts are our elected school trustees. They are supposed to watch over the district — and the superintendent — not the other way around. But school trustees are sent off to “training” after they are elected — and are often programmed to vote as a unit in lockstep with the superintendent’s wishes.
Peyton Wolcott has assembled six simple rules that every school board candidate ought to pledge before we vote them into office — tiny little promises that would make our schools districts open and clean:
• I pledge that I and my immediate family including parents, and children, grandchildren and cousins will not do business in any way with the district or its vendors.
• I pledge that I and my immediate family will not accept gifts or payments of any kind including travel reimbursements from the district or its vendors.
• I will request that the district post its check register online.
• I will request that the superintendent’s employment contract be posted on the district’s website along with a salary and stipend schedule for all employees.
• I will request the district get rid of any and all credit cards including those maintained by the administration and the board including all procurement cards of any type.
• I will request that the board audiotape all executive sessions.
Ms. Wolcott says the deal breaker so far has been Pledge #2 — promising not to take meals and trips and the like. So many terrific people, she says, seem perfectly willing to sell out for a free trip. But Wolcott says it’s just not necessary to travel to places like Orlando for school board training; she says you can do it perfectly well on the internet. She maintains that the cost of these trips to the taxpayers is staggering.
Pledge #4 will also turn some heads. While superintendents’ contacts are available to the public in most states, few people actually go to the trouble of filing an open records request to obtain a copy. Superintendents would certainly prefer that their contracts remain secret. But it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill, and if trustees are giving away the store, the taxpayers deserve to know.
According to a San Antonio newspaper, about two dozen Texas school districts have spent $2.4 million in taxpayer dollars since July of 2005 in buying out contracts of school superintendents. That’s a colossal waste of money. If school trustees are setting up the district to pay off a school superintendent for a huge payday upon the occasion of his or her firing — then the people need to know. This problem has become so widespread that several states are passing legislation to curb big payoffs to failed superintendents.
It’s past time for school districts to open up and be responsive to the people who foot the bills. And it’s time for prospective trustees to understand that the school board should not be a gateway to trips and meals on the taxpayers’ tab.
Ms. Wolcott is onto something here. Her “six simple rules for being my school trustee” should be the minimum standards that we expect from our school board members.