Chassell Township Schools’ transparent spending
One of the smallest public school districts in Michigan is Chassell Township Schools. Located on the Keweenaw Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior, Chassell students live closer to Fargo, N.D., than to Lansing. All grades are housed in one school building and during 2007-2008 it had 264 students, taught by 20 teachers. The senior class had 17 and all of them graduated.
A tiny district in a remote part of Michigan obviously cannot afford to provide many of the amenities offered at large, suburban districts on the other end of the state. But plucky little Chassell Township Schools has done something important that few of those bigger — and usually wealthier — schools are doing: Providing a monthly, online check register report that allows anybody with a Web browser to see how the district spends taxpayers' money.
On Dec. 31, 2008, the district wrote a check for $187.50 to a private individual for "7.5 hrs of service" and another for $275.00 to a different person for "snowplowing." Anyone with Internet access — from a local newspaper reporter to a researcher far away in Australia — can go to the CTS Web site any time of day, and learn the name of those receiving that money and the number on the checks used to pay them. Dozens of such expenditures for December, from bus repairs to Kleenex to legal bills and more, are also provided.
CTS was one of the first school districts in Michigan to open up its checkbook after receiving a request from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's "Show Michigan the Money" transparency project. A similar request was made of the much larger districts in Macomb and Oakland counties.
While curiosity and a computer gets you access to CTS's spending details, prying this same information from local schools in much of metro Detroit, even for the parents of children attending those districts, is a much more convoluted challenge. Anyone seeking spending information must first know what to ask for; usually they must know how to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Often they will be required to wait several days for the information to arrive, and in some cases they must be willing to pay the district to go find it for them.
What accounts for some districts doing this while others do not?
"We take stewardship of taxpayer funds very seriously, and this gives us a monthly chance to prove it to our community," said CTS Superintendent Mike Gaunt, explaining his district's online check register.
Granting the Show Michigan the Money project's request for an online check register was "no big deal," according to Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Sue Zurvalec, speaking to the Farmington Observer. That district is one of a minority in Oakland County providing this information on the Internet.
The Waterford School District is another. Assistant Superintendent Tom Wiseman told The Grand Rapids Press that his district's online check register "does not cause any problems." He also noted that the district has "always provided detailed check registers for our citizens at Board of Education meetings" and that putting them online is "just another way of getting information to our citizens."
The Montrose Community Schools in Genesee County may have been the very first district in Michigan to so widely share this information. A school employee there was convicted in 2007 of stealing more than $1 million from the district over a 10-year period. As part of the process of reassuring the community that the district was committed to keeping a judicious watch over its dollars, Superintendent Mark Kleinhans led the way to putting the district's check register on the Web. He did this following a request from Peyton Walcott, a Texas transparency advocate.
The Chippewa Valley School District in Macomb County could profit from this example. Twice in recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has investigated and won convictions against Chippewa Valley school employees for thieving money from the district and its taxpayers. James Tague was sentenced last year to 42 months in prison after stealing more than $2 million from the district while he worked there as a purchasing agent. And Dr. Richard Zaranek, then an elementary school principal, embezzled more than $400,000 between 1996 and 2003. A press release from the U.S. Attorney's office noted that Zaranek "laundered the money by funneling cash and checks through different school-related accounts, then wrote checks on those accounts to himself, personal creditors and personal investment accounts."
There is no certainty that an online check register would have uncovered or prevented these crimes at Chippewa Valley, but in both cases the criminals needed only to hide from the watchdogs they could see: other employees, administrators and the school board. Both criminals could — with a reasonable degree of accuracy — evaluate the risk of success and proceed accordingly. But if posting spending details on the Internet would encourage anyone in the district — or the world — to watch for things that looked out of place and ask questions, then bad actors would never know whose eyes or how many eyes were on them.
Bad actors such as Bernie Madoff can happen anywhere and public servants shouldn't be the only watchdogs of the public purse. The taxpayers can and should have the tools to help out as well.
Deterring crime is just an extreme example of why a transparent checkbook is a benefit; saving money is another. Anyone can quickly find out what the Chassell Township Schools pays for snow removal. If it's a good deal, then a neighboring district paying more can ring up that same contractor and perhaps get the better price. Alternatively, if CTS is paying more than necessary, then a rival contractor can see this and propose a better deal. Similar savings could be accomplished by comparing costs for other goods and services.
For both of these reasons and more, the Show Michigan the Money project has requested that Chippewa Valley and every school district in Macomb County commit to regularly placing their check registers on the Internet. With more than 15,000 students, the Chippewa Valley School District ranked as Michigan's 12th largest public school district for 2006-2007. The combined thefts at CVSD mentioned above would amount to more than 80 percent of the Chassell Township Schools' annual budget of almost $3 million. If one of the tiniest school districts in the state can commit to opening its checkbook to the public, then it's a standard that Michigan taxpayers should be able to expect of all the others.
Ken Braun is the director of the 'Show Michigan the Money' transparency project for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and also the senior managing editor of this newspaper. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.