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MI school district turns to layoffs to patch audit error

On Friday, the Wayne-Westland School District announced that it had issued layoff notices to 39 custodians, hall monitors, and teachers as part of the district’s effort to close a newly discovered $28M budget deficit. The layoffs will take effect in January.

Simple math will tell the casual observer that relieving 39 hall monitors, custodians, and teachers of their employment will not fill much of a $28M hole, unless those employees are making $700,000 per year. (They’re not.) The casual observer will also probably note that hall monitors, custodians, and teachers had no direct control over the creation of the $28M deficit.

According to school officials, they discovered the problem during an audit. Initially, the district informed parents about a $17M deficit. The figure has since been revised upward to $28M. Superintendent John Dignan said that the deficit was not the result of “deliberate miscalculations or misconduct.” Rather, he signaled that district officials were confused about handling funds provided to it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, if the budget hole was not the result of deliberate miscalculations or misconduct, does that mean it was the result of incompetence? And if so, shouldn’t the person(s) responsible for creating the problem share in its impact on the district staff? (We’re talking about a $28M mistake, after all. And the district’s financial professionals certainly had a hand in making that error. Further, it took an audit by a third-party to discover the mistake and figure out how large it was.

Layoffs should also affect those who caused them

At the end of the day, the residents of the Wayne-Westland School District will be responsible for repaying the $28M. Laying off 39 people, privatizing the bus transportation, shifting staff or any other prospective money-saving measure will not be enough to come up with $28M. (If there were significant savings to be had in any of these actions, the financial team would have taken these steps long ago, right?)

This is much less about faulty accounting than it is about faulty accountability. No one should make mistakes that cost other people their jobs and financial security without also feeling the same pinch. No one should get to increase the debt burden for a community without consequences. And no one should get to increase the state’s liability for debt without at least answering some very pointed questions.

Layoffs due to financial mismanagement should always include those responsible for the financial mismanagement. After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Losing your job may be a sharp response to making a terrible mistake, but it is certainly no worse than losing your job because someone else made a terrible mistake.

The Wayne-Westland School District Board should be prepared to ask hard questions and demand accountability from those employees who hold themselves out as financial professionals. Both the State of Michigan and the US Department of Education provided guidance on the treatment of COVID-19 related relief funds. Carrying the impact of accounting errors should not be left solely to the custodians, hall monitors, teachers, bus drivers and other personnel.

Unfortunately, this is another example of the separate standards that institutional executives hold themselves to when their actions and inactions cause problems for the rest of the organization.

Photo Credit: Steve Walser , via Flickr