THE TRIBUNE'S VIEW
Keeping it secret
Published Thursday, July 19, 2007
An internal audit of expenses charged to Columbia Public Schools by Superintendent Phyllis Chase revealed several "questionable" charges, but other district officials said explanations and reports of repayments to the district were satisfactory.
Taxpayers and other outsiders have no particular reason to doubt the assurances made by the few insiders who had access to the audit, but we have no reason to be particularly confident, either, based on hard evidence. The audit was handed over internally in December and only now becomes public because someone anonymously provided a copy to the Tribune. Moreover, the audit did not contain details of all questionable expenses requiring verbal recollections and explanations after the fact.
Most of the items were travel charges for food and drink made by Chase and her assistants. Columbia Board of Education President Karla DeSpain and member Darin Preis said they believe Chase & Co. had satisfied all the questions raised by the audit, but another member, Michelle Gadbois, said more transparency in school management would alleviate suspicion.
All these comments probably are valid, but Gadbois’ is the only irrefutable one. The district and its officers would suffer fewer questions of this type if they conscientiously opened up their procedures. The handling of internal audits is a good example.
Audits such as the one made by business office auditor Heather McArthur and quietly issued in December should immediately be made public. The effect on internal accountability for any public agency is strengthened exponentially by the sure prospect of publicity. Affected officials act more carefully, and when questionable spending is found, corrections are made more surely and quickly. Publicity makes honesty easier.
This is not to say Chase misused travel money. It is to say she and her organization would benefit greatly by becoming constitutionally more open.
Granted, Columbia Public Schools even today deals with a legacy of secrecy built over past generations. I could, but won’t, cite names of officials who made full-time business of keeping information from the public. Today’s officers do better, but the creep toward openness has been slow and painful, sustaining a more or less continual aura of suspicion surrounding their management and policymaking activities.
Most of these suspicions are not evidence of egregious wrongdoing, but even when they involve nothing more than routine areas of controversy they must penetrate a veil of secrecy that makes them much stronger.
The main issue surrounding the most recent internal audit is its tardy disclosure only after someone slipped it under our door. If it had routinely been made public at the first possible moment, questions and answers would have essentially bored a citizenry with no issue of secrecy to contemplate.
Ho-hum. Another public report.
The fact their own private inquiries satisfy board members is not the same as original disclosure so all can see.
You can’t shrink your way to greatness.
- Arthur Martinez, chairman and CEO, Sears Roebuck & Co.
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