Editorial: A Wasteful Year for the District

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Throughout the school year, the District has demonstrated a pattern of irresponsible use of public funds. Notably, they paid out former Superintendent Dr. Darnise Williams’ contract after her resignation, spent thousands on a failed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training program, and established an expensive and binding contract with Paper Tutoring which hardly any students used. All accounted for, these total close to $1 million in taxpayer money.

In December, the Board of Trustees announced that they had reached an “amicable agreement” with Williams and that she would part ways with the District. This followed a slew of closed-door meetings that took place mere hours after two new members were sworn in. Part of the agreement included a $299,000 severance package, constituting the remainder of her contract––for the entire year. Many community members accused the Board of lacking proper transparency and of pushing the Superintendent out over policy disagreements.

On the Board’s secrecy, former Board President Allen Weiner said, “I think what happened is a policy decision, which unquestionably should be the subject of public deliberation, and debate was structured as a personnel decision.”

If, as the Board claims, Williams’ departure was mutual, then the Board should not have needed to pay this money. Alternatively—if it was in the District’s best interest to pay out Williams’ contract in order to secure her departure—they should have made a public case for this use of funds.

Since 2019, the Board has paid a total of $600,000, the equivalent of roughly eight teachers’ salaries, to provide students with access to a 24/7 online tutoring service called Paper Tutoring. An investigation by the M-A Chronicle found that Paper’s services were unreliable and ineffective—most months, fewer than 2% of students used them.

Senior Hannah Blunt said, “Half the time I feel like I know more than the tutors. Then their responses take a really long time.”

The District could easily have prevented this waste. Other organizations, such as the New Mexico Department of Education, made contracts with Paper that allowed them to terminate the service and receive a refund if they saw little student-use. Similarly, a school district in Hillsborough County, Florida, included a clause in their contract that gave them a 20% discount if students used the service less than expected. SUHSD’s contract, however, did not appear to include either of these safety measures. This oversight led to the loss of thousands of taxpayer dollars for a seldom-used service.

Another wasteful expense was the District’s purchase of an unsuccessful equity-training program led by the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.

Though well-intentioned, many teachers agreed that the training was unproductive. Some believed that the program focused on situations inapplicable to educators and found the format, a Zoom webinar with 900 people and an unregulated, anonymous chat feature, unconducive to learning. USC felt their training was so ineffective that they pulled out of their contract with SUHSD last March, just months after the first session. The program originally cost $275,000. We reached out to the District to see how much they ended up paying, but they have not commented.

Public education is chronically underfunded, yet whenever people try to increase funding, others argue that public schools spend money irresponsibly. The board’s actions only fuel these objections, particularly due to their high profile nature. Wasting taxpayer dollars sows distrust among community members and discourages funding for public education.

Instead of gambling on outside organizations, the District should be funding our own programs, so we can decide how the program is run and make changes when things aren’t working. If we need to hire outside of the District, we should invest in reliable programs and implement safety measures in the event they underperform.

Moreover, there are plenty of existing programs in the District that need and deserve funding, which makes it all the more imperative that we spend our budget responsibly. In the last year, we have advocated for the expansion of sports funding to make M-A’s athletic program more equitable, highlighted how teacher salaries are failing to meet inflation and housing costs, and argued that the District’s continued failure to provide free menstrual products in school bathrooms violates state law.

In such a large district, some degree of waste is inevitable. However, these three cases of mismanagement demonstrate a degree of carelessness that has no place in public education.

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